My Side of the Fence

The danger isn't going too far. It's that we don't go far enough.

5-Year Forecast Update

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.


  1. I can not appreciate the known projects in the CIP – the ones like Prince William Street that have been a long standing infrastructure need – not being considered.  The removal of any proposed bonding issue from the 5-Year Forecast on the whimiscal basis of "wait and see" also defeats the whole purpose of the forecast as I wrote in the previous point.  It also allows more viewing of other requirements by avoiding the CIP identified requirements – and that is just pisspoor thinking and planning.
    Resources to be managed are Infrastructure, People, Time (Periodicity of when to expend funds), Equipment and Sources of Funding.  Dropping out of the forecast of identifying CIP items breaks three of them – infrastructure, time, and funding.  As you wrote, Andy, it makes the road longer and much harder given especially in Transportation Projects for finding alternate/additional funds on top of a bond.
    Seems the "Five-P Principle" is being forgotten.  There are also the running comments by members of the Council on how the Regional Planning treats Manassas like a second class City….failing to take the hard stand is leading us down that road. 

  2. Andy,
    Thank you for the information and analysis.  
    How did the vote break out?  Can you attribute any quotes to he/those who championed the vote to zero out all planned investment in public schools and other local infrastructure?  It would be helpful to all to better understand his/their stated thinking and/or ideological motivation.
    Did Ian speak to the issue at any length before the vote?

  3. andy

    November 25, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Mr. Randolph and I voted against the proposal.  Mr. Way, Lovejoy and Aveni voted for it.  Mr. Wolfe was out of town.  I'll not attribute those quotes to individual members as they, no doubt, would want to provide a larger view of their position.

    As for Ian, I don't really remember.  That was a very long meeting and others might recall better than I.  I was busy trying to figure out a way to save my budget proposal!

    We really should start recording the meetings in the second floor conference room.  It's where the sausage is made and folks would get a better idea of how gov't works.

  4. Concern for Manassas

    November 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    It seems that the Tea Party folks are running things. Aveni and Lovejoy we knew about. Apparently Way is wearuing his tea bag on his lapel again. And our Mayor is running afraid of his shadow, again. Don't these folks read election results? Time to vote them all out. Mr. Hersch, how about a recall petition?

  5. Andy, talk to Bill Golden.  He's been experimenting with livestreaming a Neabsco Action Alliance meeting from a county government building.  He may be willing to try it out on a City 2nd floor conference meeting as well so you can see how well it works.  I watched the Neabsco Action Alliance meeting from home, and if I wanted to, I could log in and type in a question for Bill to relay. I told Patty Prince about it last week.

  6. Concerned is right. What kind of City do these folks want? I've heard the Tea Party folks want to eliminate funding for the museum, cut cops and fire fighters, reduce funding for the schools, defund the arts and even cut support for the gang task force. Do these people live in the same City that I do? If that happens turn out the lights. 

  7. As the sole person in that room (after the two hour mark, anyway) who is neither directly employed by nor an elected representative of our city, I have this to say:   Sausage making, ideed.    The council was debating the merits of several proposed spending projections, with the goal of approving one.  Seems simple enough.   But I'll say it again.  Projections. Not anything set in stone, not anything that was irreversible, not anything that a reasonable person would believe was, well, unreasonable.     If some want to label the deliberations the other night as 'prudent and common sense governance', I would disagree.   At the risk of sounding glib, head in the sand governance would be more accurate.   Hours were spent in a back and forth over whether a CIP line item should be in the projection.   Should that line item have a zero?   Should that line item be there at all when council hasn't gotten all the CIP reports from staff?   I feel this one other line item is questionable, why is it there?  Come on guys, we need leadership, it's what you were elected for.  It's what we expect of you.   If you feel your job is to drag your feet on any and all expenditures (even projected expenditures) beyond what exist today, I'd say you're short sighted.   If you feel you can cut your way into having CIP funds available in sufficient amounts, you're misguided.
    So you say the  "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".     Some weeks ago, multiple departments presented, in a public forum, their CIP desires.   Ranging from new facilites for the police, fire/rescue, and schools,  to infrastructure improvement requests from the water and sewer departments and public works, nothing seemed to be a secret.  Why do members of the council seem to think that they need to wait for further explanation? For a projection?   Is staff going to say, 'nope, we made a mistake, no CIP needs here'?   You may not have all the nitty gritty details yet, but for goodness sake don't pretend you're in the dark here.   Please.     
    Thankfully, It was not all bad.   I was pleased to see that all members agreed that the fund balance should not be depleted solely to keep the tax rates flat.  There were clear indications from some that an increase in the levy was going to be required at some point, but why they wouldn't vote to put it into the projections I don't know.  It is more than a little disingenuous to skip it.   I would also say the Mayor did his job just fine that night, and wasn't backing down from anyone's shadow.   On several occasions he did not hesitate to rebuke council members for either attempting to put words in his mouth, or for being flippant and argumentative.  Love him, hate him, or anything in between, he conducts a proper meeting, and I never have any doubt that he has the best interests of the city at heart.   Recalls?  We've got better things to expend energy on…
    Thanks for the opportunity to say my piece        

  8. Mr. Spall:
    I was in the room too – although not as long as you.  I thought the Mayor did a lousy job.  He acts more like a council member than a mayor.

  9. All:
    Remember, there are rules here.  If you thought that someone did a poor job, send them an email – don't post it here.  I won't allow further discussion of individuals.  Stick to the policy topic(s).

  10. Andy,
    I guess that I'm in the minority here but as the saying goes "the devil is in the details". If staff did not have enough of the details to make the individual councilman comfortable with the numbers, then that councilman should vote against the measure. The staff will not be the one's who will take the blame for a mistake, it will be the councilman. It is their responsibility to ask the questions. I do not blame the councilmen who voted against this measure. I don't think I've ever heard a citizen blame the staff for a high tax rate. I've heard many blame a councilman or the mayor for a high tax rate. I say that staff must provide more accurate projections and convince these councilmen to change their mind in a future session. This is not a dead issue never to be discussed again as some appear to think.

  11. Andy, I agree with Mr. Stokely.  Nothing wrong with being a bit cautious when making these types of decisions.
    Having spoken to one of the Council members who took this vote, I was told they just thought that 'more' detailed information was needed by staff before a decision was made.
    Not "everything needs to be explained to us." as you say in your post.
    Oh, and by the way, sounds like those CIP and budget meetings are about as much fun as they were six or seven years ago when I was on Council.  Thanks for the hard work Andy, I know its not easy on any one of you.

  12. Mo & Jackson:  thanks for posting.  We disagree but that ain't the end of the world.  I value your input.
    Jackson: they haven't changed much.  We've reduced the number of meetings since those days but that's likely to change this year.  Thanks for coming tonight.

  13. Agree with Mo. Council will be blamed, not staff. And I can’t fault a Councilman for voting no on stuff that has little to no details. I see a whole lot of what we call in my line of work “vaporware”.

  14. andy

    November 27, 2012 at 7:27 am

    DB:  those proposals I saw at the community meeting and the huge binder detailing the public safety building introduced last year looked pretty real to me! 

  15. There were lots of details but no amount of details will suffice if one chooses to vote no. Voting no as a matter of policy can be acceptable if one disagrees as a matter of policy, but then one must be out front on the policy difference and not hide behind an asserted lack of detail. I would personally like to better understand the significance of a no vote. At bottom: In what way are projects prejudicued by a no vote now if the no vote is really based on a lack of detail? Can those voting no state that good projects will not be delayed or otherwise be prejudiceed if more detail is provided? That clarification would be helpful (at least to me).

  16. Golly, please forgive my rushed spelling in the last post — shortly on way to hospital for imminent arrival of first grandchild (will update on that later even if off topic!).

  17. Since the "devil in the details", let's look at a major assumption in the plan – the Change in Assessments of 3% a year.  Nice figure based on prior years….and is an average since last year SFH, TH and Condos basically averaged out to that.  Market data for CY2012 (Jan-Sep) though may not warrant though maintaining a view there will be that average 3%
    In this year, the average median sale price in the City is $217K with the average sale price of $222K.  Take note, that is in the range of even the current assessments.  And let us not forget there are still around 80 "distressed" properties (in foreclosure or banked-owned).  The key to watch is what the "Assessment to Sale Price Ratio is.
    As reported for FY2012 by City Commissioner of Revenue, this Ratio was 96.8 % and the current Ratio for the year is 98% for an average.  Only a growth of 1.2% and this Ratio will affect the calculations when run by the City. This Ratio plus the actual sale prices may not bring out the "assumed" 3%.  Small detail.
    About the CIP, well, considering several of the items which were considered within the proposed City 2014 Bond were first identified and approved years ago (i.e. Prince William Street) and initial costs identified then. Having been involved with several Military Construction Projects in the past, when we brought forward to get into the programmed budget a project plan with some age on it, an inflation factor was used to provide a possible cost to at least place it in the Five Year Plan with INTENTIONALITY to show where the base funding would be needed.  Once the project was approved in that Plan, then work on full cost was performed to show actual cost, and then – since we were INTENTIONAL in planning – the Five Year Plan was adjusted.  That development also allowed for programming of any needed equipment or supplies to furnish a facility in the Out-Year when the building was completed.
    In the inital Five Year in question, I noticed also the FRS Bonds in 2015 for $800K and the 2017 for $800K. As Andy pointed out above, there was a huge binder.  Not bad to offer two bonds to raise the Fire Levy without the original mandate Resolution saying the Strategic Plan was the priority – now deferred until 2013. Assumption of two bonds without a correlating Strategic Plan is a detail definitely missing.
    Of course, without seeing the Minutes of the meeting (we really need a camera to record sessions in that 2nd Floor Conference Room!), the average citizen has no idea what was recorded officially as the reasons. It is a nice idea to wait for the work out of the Joint CIP Process; however, if the original intent to include the above Bonds "parked" in the FYs they related to, would at least allow all to plan accordingly.

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