No easy way out

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There seemed to be a disconnect in Monday’s City Commission work session between the politicians and the professionals employed to advise them on budgetary matters. Commission members have things they want to accomplish but City Manager Fred Goins and Finance Director Steve Dawson admonish they’ll need additional revenue to sustain the spending these plans require.
It’s not unlike a situation that confronted the previous commission, which dealt with a shortfall by enacting a $5 monthly fee for garbage collection and phasing out longevity pay for career employees, who at that time could rely on 3 percent raises every three years in addition to any across-the-board raises. The garbage fee angered voters, who fired two incumbents in the next election, and the longevity decision embittered city employees.
Commissioner Sellus Wilder, a member of that commission and the present one, correctly criticized the garbage fee as a backdoor tax increase. He later spearheaded the successful campaign for pay-as-you-throw garbage collection, which set fees lower for people who dispose of less waste, higher for others.
At Monday’s meeting, the board informally stepped back from phasing out longevity pay, currently scheduled to expire June 30. Four members agreed to keep the seniority rewards in place, albeit at a reduced level – 1 percent instead of 3 percent. Michael Turner said he’d support the lower percentage if the interval between the raises were increased to five years. He, like his colleagues, worries that the loss of rewards would cause more experienced employees to look for jobs elsewhere.
While committing to the expenditures that longevity pay would necessarily entail, the commission balked at the option of raising the city’s occupational tax from 1.75 percent to 2 percent to boost revenue. Wilder said he’d have gone for that alternative if property taxes were reduced by 2 percent. But raising the payroll tax when the economy is sluggish and paychecks are stagnant is a bitter pill. Unlike city employees, who continue to receive cost-of-living pay raises, state workers aren’t due any in the 2012-2014 biennium. State government is the capital city’s biggest employer and its pay policies have a direct bearing on city occupational tax revenue.
Because city government’s personnel and other costs continue to rise, the finance director and city manager say additional revenue is needed. Raising taxes and fees is generally less popular than holding them down. But sooner or later, Dawson said after the meeting, something has to give. Even with $500,000 in spending cuts on departmental funding requests and insurance costs under consideration, there’s a $1.2 million gap between projected spending and income. Each commission member is to propose line items to cut from the budget in a May 30 meeting.
All four commissioners survived Tuesday’s primary election and will compete in the November runoff. They’ll want to demonstrate good judgment in crafting the budget that takes effect July 1. Challengers who hope to unseat them have the luxury of believing they could do better without actually having to deliver until next year, if they win. Voters should insist that they, too, back up their claims with specific proposals.

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