Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Courts vs. Core Services--It's Not One Or The Other!--Isn't It?

During a recent Council discussion on the court project it became apparent that there is a difference of opinion regarding how to deal with our current financial difficulties and on City priorities. I had just agreed with Councilman Ellis that under the current economic situation no new funding should be provided, nor debt increased, for the court project this year and instead focus on core services--public safety, services, and education. At this point I was told by one of my collogues that I should stop implying that we can only either move the court project forward or maintain services. This came as a bit of a surprise for me.

As it has been reported, almost on a daily basis and in multi-media, localities will see significant reductions in state funding in all areas. One has only to look what local school districts are going through and they are now only dealing with state cuts. Funding at the local level is still up for discussion. Last night we authorized the use of our gas tax funds for snow removal expenses and to make up a $65,000 cut in our road maintenance budget from the state. Even when fully funded the state contribution doesn't cover the city's actual costs.

Local revenue is still lagging and last year the city used almost two million in reserves and the budget still came in lower than the previous year. So we start the coming year already in a hole. We were able to provide some additional funds to the schools last year by bring in designated reserves--a one-time expenditure. We don't have any to use this year.

We have seen the city workforce not only reduced due to attrition, but also no raises, the suspension of a retirement program, and increased benefit costs-- meaning actual salary reductions. We have deferred need maintenance on equipment and capital projects and have reduced funding to core services. And this year's budget will be worse than last years. So you can understand my surprise with the implication that we can both move forward with court project and maintain core services to residents.

My response to my colleague's remark was to ask the City Manager if there was some new funding sources that I was not aware of that could be used for the court project. I was told that bonds would have to be sold and new debt incurred. As previously reported the total cost of the new court facility will translate to 6 to 9 cents on the tax rate. So, to move the court project forward and maintain services will require additional tax increase in addition to those for the courts, and or further reductions in the budget outside of core services.

On the tax front I have already mentioned that sales and related taxes are down or flat. On the real estate side we are soon to go into another assessment cycle and as seen in Spotsylvania the residential market has not bounced back as much as we have hoped. During our last assessment we got in before the drop in the commercial market, which usually lags 12 to 18 months behind residential, so we are now looking at lower commercial values. Taking bets on whether the assessment will be deferred. So how much more can we raise taxes in an already depressed economy with high unemployment?

Although I consider myself a good Republican I do not subscribe to the "No Tax" mantra as stated in a number of previous posts. For me the deciding fact is the benefit of an expenditure in either the area of expanding the tax base and or bettering the quality of life of our residents. Frankly, for the cost involved, and based on the current economic conditions, I don't see any significant benefit in moving forward with the court project. It is my contention, which a majority of my colleagues disagree, that moving forward with the court at this time could be detrimental to our commercial base, services, and quality of life of our residents.

The majority response is that the courts are inadequate and it is our "moral obligation" to replace them. That to move forward now will mean we can get a better price due to the depressed economic conditions. As for our "moral obligation" I thought we owed that to city residents by providing them a good quality of life. As for costs benefits I would point out that you first have to have the money. Right now we don't have it unless we significantly raise taxes. And the argument for the price savings could also be made for deferred projects and infrastructure improvements that will have a more beneficial impact on the city than will a new court facility.

As for additional cuts outside of core services that is an decision which this Council has avoided for three years. Each year we talk about it and each year we give everybody who asks some level of funding. This after two years of telling such groups, or sending letters, advising them not to expect funding next year. And each year the Council says we will talk about budget priorities next year. The question of what services should local government be supporting is one that I have asked repeatedly, and posted on, and am still awaiting an answer. We do need to prioritize our expenditures and the court project should not be high in the list.

I have asked for a public presentation on the court project including an overview of the current city finances, a time line for the project, costs for the design, cost of the project, funding sources for it, and its implication on the budget. And now, based on the comments from some of my collogues, I would expect an explanation from them on how we move the court project forward without impacting core service. And also what do they see as the city's priorities. That presentation should come sooner rather than later.

Do you see the court project as a priority for the city? Are you willing to see services reduced further or pay higher taxes so this project can move forward?

2 comments:

Hamilton said...

1 of 2
Court Project? What court project, the one Council spent $400k of taxpayer dollars using misinformation as a basis of appropriation? Or the court project council GAVE away $400k of taxpayer dollars? I say gave away because Council did not go through the public procurement process nor could Council, the City Attorney, or the City Manager tell the taxpayers what part of the Virginia Code authorized them to spend those sums without going through the public procurement process except to say that they did not need to do it for a real estate purchase. So, City Council just ‘pissed’ away $400,000 of taxpayer dollars by holding themselves as being ‘above the law’. All I ask is that the City cites the Virginia Code that allowed the expenditure.

Or, are we talking about the new new court project that council is moving forward on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on with no Public Hearing? It appears to me that the Mayor and Council do not care what the taxpayers think, that they are going to do what someone tells them to do and us taxpayers be ‘damned’ and taxed more without any public hearing. And, just how much money has the city spent on the new courthouse?

I am willing to accept reduced or elimination of services but not essential services. Government cannot nor should not do all things for all people. The people should step in and help themselves. A good example was this past weeks snowstorms where some citizens jumped in and shoveled or plowed public places. I saw many others waiting for the City to come by and do the same or complain that the City was not responsive. I saw people without a home but with a hand out for food and shelter with a sidewalk next door that needed to be cleared. I saw Government closed with employees still getting paid (some governments put liberal leave in place) and those employees staying inside waiting for City crews to clear their roads. I read where the average government employee makes more than the taxpayer. Yet, most taxpayers have taken a cut in pay or a reduction in work hours and some have lost their jobs. Yet, the City offered the City Manager a very lucrative pay package (I’m not saying he is not worthy of it) in very tight fiscal times. So, who is out of touch? And, where are these funds to come from to support a somewhat boated Government that wants more office space, wants more salaries for themselves, wants more taxes to support their ‘needs’?

Hamilton said...

Wake up. The Court project is only one problem with our City. We need Council persons who can bring the budget in check, make hard decisions that might not be popular, quit giving money to every social service that asks for it, quit funding new positions in the city, quit funding new projects until we can pay for the ones we have, quit awarding contracts without going through the public procurement process.

We need an outside auditor of the City’s finances, an auditor who has access to all of the City’s finances and who has done similar tasks for other communities. We need an inventory of the City’s property, how it is being utilized, how much is vacant, when it was purchased/built, the condition of it, the annual maintenance budget of each. Get rid of excess inventory.

The facts are:
The City has not recently increased in size, nor greatly increased in population.
The City has increased its economic base with Central Park
The City purchased land and built a new Police Department.
The City is planning to vacate the Renwick building and build a new courthouse
The City is planning on demolishing the fire station.
The City is planning on purchasing new land and building a new fire station for x$.
Other localities have recently build new fire stations, but for much more than x$.
The City has purchased or been given more land and buildings in the last 20 years, all of which are not now being taxed. Not only do we need to maintain more, we are taking what was taxable property and removing it from the tax rolls. This causes the City to have to raise more tax dollars just to break even.
The City can do a better job and it is Council who needs to LEAD.

I am grateful for those City employees who are doing a good job. As I look around today, I wonder how many city employees (on the payroll today) grabbed a shovel or a snow plow and how many stayed at their desk or just drove around watching other employees working? I say this because someone remarked to me that one employee (with a desk job) was seen driving around our block 4 times today in a city vehicle.

Sorry for the unedited long winded response, but this Courthouse thing is just one part of the problem.