The Council had a long meeting last week on the 5-year forecast. At the end, we voted (3-2) to approve a forecast that keeps the tax rate in the general fund the same and raises the rate slightly in the Fire/Rescue fund. This forecast also includes an assumption that home prices will appreciate by 3% so if that holds true, your tax bill will increase slightly. This will result in commensurate increases to the operating budget of the city and schools.
The huge change to the forecast is the removal of all bonded CIP projects from the forecast. This includes clearly defined projects like the Portner/Battle drainage project, the Main Street revitalization project and the loooong past-due overhaul of Prince William street and the underlying drainage system. It also includes no mention of funds for the ongoing school/city CIP process. This forecast budget for the CIP is "$0".
The intent in placing the zero as a line item for the CIP is to indicate that "the Council doesn't know what will come out of the CIP process so we're not going to include any money in the budget until someone explains everything to us". It's a laudable goal and in a different setting would make alot of sense. However, I'm afraid this action sends the wrong message to our City staff, our Schools and our citizens. I believe we needed to signal a willingness to raise the revenue necessary to rebuild our aging and soon-to-be undersized schools and 50's era street infrastructure. It's a fundamental disconnect in our governance: we talk about wanting to attract a good balance of residents but we're unprepared to do anything about it. Einstein was right about doing the same thing over and over….
Now, there will be those among you that think the above is common sense governance and, if not for my experience to date on the Council, I might agree. Indeed, to be fair, this would appear to be a difference in approach. Not that big a deal….but it is. I'd like to make two points. One: the later you get into the budget process to present things, the less likely they are to happen. People, as well as our business community, don't like surprises. You can't hand-wave this away: it's an absolute fact. The second point is that by taking this action, the Mayor and Council are set to engage in a debate about what operating costs we should cut in order to fund the bonds we need. Laugh and point at me if you want but I've heard just these suggestions – cut the Museum, reduce police officers and/or fire fighters – in the 2nd floor conference room. The same night we passed this forecast in fact. Nothing wrong with scouring the budget but I'm not laying off public safety staff to fund CIP needs.
Barbeque me but this isn't the discussion that a city that believes it is ascendant is having. A municipality on the rise is willing to forthrightly fund city institutions and also replace crumbling infrastructure and aging schools. People bemoan the current status of our city but if we're not willing to pay for the stuff that makes a difference, I'm not sure what all the moaning is about. You get what you pay for folks. You can't attract development, redevelopment and better retail while cutting essential services to fund infrastructure. The results of this continuing municipal fugue are reflected in both the condition of and ongoing exodus from the city. There is no mystery here.
We'll see what happens…hopefully we'll emerge from the budget process with our municipal institutions intact and some money to build schools and roads but the road just got a lot longer.