When someone runs for an elected office they may have a variety of motivations for joining the race. Regardless of their personal aspirations, however, they first and foremost have an obligation to represent the needs of their constituents above all else.
Of these needs the most critical is ensuring that essential services are provided in a manner that is consistent and sustainable. By essential services I mean police, fire, water, sewer, garbage and the maintenance of city facilities.
It is here, however, that many of our city’s leaders, both past and present, have consistently failed us.
While the city council members are really the city’s elected leaders, most council members defer to staff’s judgment and recommendations on major items and only comment when something is of interest to them or a member of the public with whom the council member is acquainted.
While the city staff makes every effort to consider the needs of the community when putting together the budget, they are required to make assumptions that may or may not come to fruition. For example, the question of “how much will revenues grow in the future” can lead to over-optimistic assumptions.
If expenses are growing at a faster rate than revenues and cost reductions are not considered, then we are headed for a train wreck. If the situation is not addressed at the staff level, then it is imperative that we have a city council that is familiar enough with the city’s financial history to question staff.
By now, you have learned of the city’s dire financial situation, which is bad and only quickly getting worse. The city’s budget year began in July and runs to the end of June. Since the start of the current fiscal year no one has taken the necessary steps to cut spending enough to bring it in line with revenues, as the council and staff agreed to do when they adopted the budget in July of last year.
This means that the city will have to spend down its reserve funds by a substantial amount, and deeper cuts will be needed next year if a balanced budget is ever to be achieved. The city council has repeatedly ignored input and calls from their constituents for an independent review. They have also failed to implement any needed cuts, probably because it was not their idea.
In 2015, current council members Robinson, Rigby, Medellin, Oliver and others no longer on the council, put this financial crisis, created by the former city administration, into motion.
They put the city on this financial collision course, where costs would grow well beyond revenues by failing to ask staff if their assumptions regarding revenue projections were correct and then approving a city-wide salary and benefit increases (which far exceeded any of the 10 comparator agencies that were used in their salary survey.) Salaries and benefits currently amount to well over 50 percent of the city’s operating budget (the general fund) which accounts for police, fire and parks.
When the 2016-2017 budget was being presented for adoption, the city council was warned by a member of the public that approving the budget as drafted would place the city in financial jeopardy. The council chose to ignore that warning and proceeded with adoption on the recommendation of the former city administrator.
No long-range projections were made available by staff to the council, nor did council ask for one or they may not have adopted the budget as it was presented. A 5-year forecast was prepared by staff but only after the budget was adopted. It showed that city spending would surpass revenues, but the council was not shown this information.
Here is where real fiscal stewardship from the council could have prevented the current budget deficit and dilemma. If only the council had demanded a long-range forecast to determine if the spending plan was sustainable prior to adopting the budget.
However, once again our elected officials failed to put any real thought into spending $96,455,837 of our hard-earned tax dollars.
At an October council meeting council members repeatedly praised staff for their excellent work in preparing a plan for reducing a token amount of expenses while ignoring the need for larger and more immediate cost cutting measures. When the financial services director was asked a basic question that he was unable to answer, that should have been a red flag for the council, but again, they chose to ignore the signs.
It is unfortunate that in the end, hardworking city employees, along with their families will be the ones to suffer because of the council’s failure to adequately engage in serious policy discussions. Instead, the council chooses to take the course of “Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.” More early retirements and layoffs are inevitable and the residents will incur delays and inconveniences when services are scaled back or eliminated altogether as a result of council’s short-sightedness.
Several members of the current council may aspire to hold a higher political office but the public needs to consider what is being said here before surrendering our future to them.
As a final thought, in some departments it now takes three people to handle the same job formerly performed by one person. Someone should have thought to ask if the city could really afford or needed those other two people before hiring them.
A responsible city, like a well run business, needs to live within it’s financial means or make the cuts necessary to do so.