Well it’s budget time again, and next Tuesday marks the start of the annual process of reviewing (and ultimately approving) the city’s budget plan for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. The reviews start on July 30 and will occur every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. through August. On the nights of council meetings, the meetings will be at city hall. On the other nights, it will be at the Civic auditorium. As always, these meetings are open for the public to attend and observe the process first hand.
The city has done a great job of recovering from the 2008-2009 financial debacle. Cash reserves are up, the police department has been rebuilding its ranks, older equipment is slowly being replaced at the fire department and morale among employees is pretty good. Overall, it’s been a good recovery and great things have been happening. Ultimately, there are a number of people to “thank” for helping with the recovery, including the tax payers for their support. After all, it’s all taxpayer money that supports government. But as time passes, some forget the troubles we’ve had or forget the struggles we faced early on. That leads to some forgetting the complexities of operating a city. Some are now insisting on drastic cuts now that things are getting back to “normal.” One I’ve heard recently is the need to now eliminate the city property tax that was put back on the books in 2010 when we were virtually out of cash. That tax works out to be about $400,000 a year to the city’s general fund.
I’ll be the first to say I want lower taxes. But it’s also important to look at the entire picture before you focus on one or two areas as justification. Here’s one example: our city just finished two years of supplemental support for our fire department from the federal government. The SAFER grant paid close to $400k a year to the city to help restore and maintain nine fire positions. That grant revenue stream runs out this month. From a budget stand point, keeping all other things equal, the amount we will have to spend in our general fund in 2014 will go down $400k vs. last year because we no longer have the SAFER grant revenue. That also means that any cut of the property tax will only add the amount that has to come from elsewhere in the budget. If we cut that tax completely, we’ll have an $800k reduction in revenue starting the new budget year.
The response from some is to cut the fire department and quit running calls into the county – in essence, let the fire protection district run their own department with the tax they collect. Well, that option has come up before. In the end, we benefit financially by serving both areas. We can use “county” equipment on calls we make (both inside and outside the city), they provide gear we’d otherwise have to buy, and they supplement other items we would lose if we ended that agreement. And that’s ignoring the fact that it still takes practically same number of firemen to respond to a house fire a quarter-mile inside the city limits vs. outside.
Knowing that stopping services in the county would mean we’d likely sign a mutual aid agreement with the district (as we do with all other area fire departments), we’d still ultimately be going to those calls – the difference being we’d be using our equipment (vs. theirs) while receiving NO reimbursement (since mutual aid is just that – they help us, we help them – there is no billing either way for costs.) Ultimately, cutting service to the district would equate to a net “loss” to the city.
So at the end of the day, we’ve got about 60 days to get our budgets discussed, tweaked, and approved before the next fiscal year starts. Sales tax revenues will likely be flat. Grants we’ve had the last few years are ending, and costs to do business – like repairing roads and buying gasoline for city vehicles – continue to increase. Oh the fun of being an elected official!
I’ll leave you with a few (some semi-funny but all so true) budget rules given every year by Mr. Mark Levin, city administrator of Maryland Heights, Mo. Mark is an annual speaker at the Municipal League events I attend and many (myself included) consider him an excellent resource when it comes to municipal budgeting.
The budget must be balanced. You can only spend it once. You get what you pay for. All dollars are equal. Someone has to pay. There are no magic beans. 2 + 2 = 4 no matter who’s asking. There’s more to government than what you see.
I hope to see you at one of the future budget sessions. Until next time: stay the course, keep the faith and God bless Neosho!
Richard Davidson is mayor of Neosho.