I've had a couple of questions about the budget and where we are with it. Since we don't have a local paper anymore it seems as though this stuff has fallen through the cracks. This article over at insidenova.com is pretty much the extent of the coverage but it does contain some errors.
Where we are is as follows: The Council has completed it's budget creation/modification process. That's about 15 meetings followed by a mark up session. "Mark Up" is meeting where all of the "Open items" are considered. The open items list consists of a couple of things: anything that is new in this budget, any items in the budget placed on the open items list by a Council member and all of the tax rates are also automatically on open items. Each of the items on the list gets a roll call vote. This vote is a "straw vote" and not binding but it is unusual for someone to change their vote. As a practical matter it's pretty late in the game and you either support it or you don't.
This years Mark Up meeting went pretty smoothly considering the City Manager is leaving, our CFO is gone and our budget analyst had a family emergency at the last minute and couldn't make the meeting! It wasn't a huge deal though as Council members are very familiar with the budget and, as others have pointed out, I have awesome math skills. The main point of contention this year was the CIP. In summary, we bounced the public safety building and one of the fire stations into future years. We also eliminated several small neighborhood projects. They're nice to have but we need to spend on money on higher priority projects. As for the rest of the budget proposal, most of it was approved as well: all of the additions to City staff, most notably the creation of an Economic Development department, went through. There was a fair amount of debate on the Fire/Rescue front on the increases to that fund. I don't think that anyone is unhappy with the functioning of the Fire/Rescue system but it's been growing by leaps and bounds so I belive what you're seeing is a desire that the growth in that fund settle down some. A small merit raise was also approved.
As for the tax rates, the Council voted unanimously to leave the tax rate at its current level. We also voted unanimously to add 6.2 cents onto the existing rate for the CIP. This was the front-loading strategy that raises more money up front which allows the City to combine bond funds with our capital cash on-hand to reduce the tax increase. We can do this as we can avoid dedicating operating cash to debt service long enough that some existing debt will be paid off and we can use that free cash to help pay the bonds. In the end it's finance, not math, and it saves our citizens money. Now, if you opposed the CIP plan in its entirety, that probably doesn't mollify you but that's the way it went.
The transfer to the schools for both operating and capital funds was also approved unanimously.
The next step will be a public hearing a week from today. After that, the Council will have a work session which will be followed by the public votes (at a regular Council meeting) on the budget.
The City Manager presented his budget last week. An extravaganza complete with lavaliere microphone! It was an hour long and I must commend the Manager on his presentation. Well-crafted, clearly rehearsed and well-delivered. An excellent job. Our City Manager very clearly understands that the budget is the purist way to express an institutions priorities. I also applaud his willingness to take Council's goals and craft plans and budgets to achieve those goals. On to content:
In an unusual echo of the previous City Manager, Mr. Hughes, Mr. Budesky reiterated that it is his belief that the departmental budgets have been cut to their practical limits. Continued budget reduction will require the further elimination of services, not just personnel reduction. What that means is, don't bother cutting (for example) Neighborhood Services. Just close it down and layoff all the employees. Same with the rest: Museum, etc, etc. I think he's right.
Schools: A central theme in all of our budget meetings and the reason we created the joint CIP task force. Many feel that the Council should lean harder on the Schools but I'm telling you if we lean much harder, we'll fall over. School performance is central to our vision statement for the City and their increasing performance is very important to our collective success. With the tax rate staying the same the schools get a bump in their funding from the City (and probably reductions from the Feds and State). This bump will bring funding levels back to where they were 5 years ago! This is important as Virginia is in the bottom 10% of states where school funding is concerned.
Economic Development: This was clearly a main theme of the evening. I know I'll get asked about this so here it is: our Economic Development department is 25% of a single employee's time. She's also responsible for the Museum system, Planing, plan review, permitting, zoning, neighborhood services and development services. And there are no deputies in any of those departments. She's talented and capable but there is a practical limit to how far any one person can subdivide her time before it becomes pointless. The proposition is clearly to go big right out of the chute. Another facet to the ED proposal is to bring the George Mason Enterprise Institute into Old Town. That's got potential to be a game changer. I'd be surprised if the Council doesn't go for most of that proposition but I've been wrong before.
Housing and Redevelopment: 2 items here, we would start to get control of the parking situation in some of our higher-density neighborhoods. This is waaay overdue – the Council really hasn't tried anything to date despite citizen complaints. I did make a presentation at the Land Use meeting about some options but the Manager is leading the way here. We'll need an additional person in the Treasurers office to handle permitting, etc. The other part of the proposal is a "Redevelopment Fund". I don't know a hell of a lot about how to redevelop but in most cases the locality has to have some cash to leverage other public and private resources. We'll be hearing more about all of that in a work session.
The tax rate would remain where it is under this proposal. As most properties are appreciating modestly, this would result in a bit of a tax increase. However, our tax bills are still about $500 less than PWC. I don't like using that metric very much. If your calling card is that you're the cheapest place to live then…you're just the cheapest place to live. Manassas needs residents of all levels of income to remain healthy but we've seen a fair amount of flight from our City to PWC. That's got to stop and the way we stop it is to move the city forward. That requires money.