In the previous installment I laid out a bit of path that I intend to cover at some length in this and a subsequent post. This post will be about what the city government has done over the past 10-odd years. The City has been through some distressing times. The illegal immigration problems that followed the immigration wave from central and south America. Housing collapse, great recession and eventual significant downsizing of the City government. Hiring a new city manager and his subsequent departure. Federal lawsuits. Poorly performing schools.
As I stew on all of that I guess that I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I'm pretty proud that a group of relative newcomers to local government managed to get through all of that. We did have some highly skilled help in the form of Larry Hughes and his staff when it came to the Great Recession and our response to that but the Council did have to hold together. Or at least a majority did anyway. The "center" held for much of that time. That seems positive to me. What I didn't like so much was that, aside from not going broke, not much positive was achieved in that time. There was Manassas Next and the initiatives contained therein and maybe the neighborhood stabilization initiative but that is about it. At least in terms of positive movement forward. I don't include "Education Forward" initiative as that wasn't strictly a Council deal although I will return to that.
One might reasonably ask "why"? Why did nothing really good happen? Well, certainly there wasn't any money to do anything ground breaking but that's really not the root of it. I've served beside 2 different Mayors and, while they have very different approaches to "Mayoring" they do share one belief: the budget is the single most important thing the Council does. The budget process reflects that priority. We meet probably 30 times on the budget. Some are finance meetings, some are work sessions and some are regular Council meetings but we spend more time on the budget than everything else combined….and by a large margin. When I was first elected we also had 2 all-day Saturday meetings. Most of the other local government folks I know, including our recently departed manager, are surprised by our budget process. It's byzantine by any measure. It's also largely supply sided. Until 2 years ago we didn't do spending projections! I'll never forget the finance meeting where our staff introduced our first spending projections. They were pretty conservative projections with small salary increases and a low inflation number. Some Council members were so freaked out to see those numbers that they wanted to pull the report back! We're telegraphing a tax increase! I understood but didn't share that concern. I was the one that asked for the projections, I need to understand what a "base case" of spending looks like a couple of years down the road. I do it in my business and it's a good practice. I don't know any very successful business owners who don't do this. It's an integral part of a financial model.
Now, using this process isn't all bad. Indeed, it served the City well for a good 30 years but I feel that the process itself has become so insular and byzantine that it serves almost nothing but itself. The death march that has become our budget process has largely become our vessel for a policy making process. Some will rightly point out that your budget defines your priorities – we spend a lot on schools, public safety and public works. That's a pretty common set of priorities in local government so nothing wrong there but the point I'm trying to make is that while our problems as a community have changed, our governance and its processes have not. Simply put, this all-consuming focus on budget, budget, budget has had an unfortunate side effect: our winning strategy, our methodology for dealing with the City's problems has been to make Manassas the cheapest place to live in NoVa. When all you do is focus on the budget, it becomes the solution to everything.
When I went through my first budget process a line-item copy of the budget was distributed and the process used that 150 page book. Clearly, the aim was for Council members to understand each line in the budget. It is proper and correct for Council members to have a thorough understanding of the budget but believe me that there is a finite amount of energy that any Council member can bring to this job. A finite amount of focus. Now, then dwell on these two questions:
1. Is understanding the budget at that level where you want the City's leadership to expend those finite resources? and
2. Has the method of governance proved successful over the past 6-10 years? Has being the cheapest place to live in NoVa been a successful strategy?
As my coda, I'll offer this: if you've read this and think I'm making an argument for raising taxes, please, you're missing the point. Go back and read it again.
I'll deliver the final piece of this in a week or so.