Make time for budget talks

We need to talk — council members with one another and with key staff. By the end of June, we Nancy Oateshope to pass a budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which starts July 1, and we still haven’t had those all-important discussions about the best way to spend taxpayers’ financial resources. Guaranteed we won’t agree on spending priorities. Think how hard it is to work out with your spouse the best use of household funds. These talks take time, and we haven’t started.

Council has had several budget work sessions, dating back to the beginning of the calendar year. But those sessions consist only of PowerPoint presentations by various departments. We have asked the department heads questions about alternate funding sources, revenue fluctuations and speculation of future costs, but we have not done any long-term planning or strategized about how to maintain or enhance quality of life and what priorities must be shifted to get where we want to go.

For instance, the manager has recommended a 3.5% across-the-board pay raise for town employees. However, that will widen the wealth gap. A 3.5% increase would raise the pay of a $30,000-a-year worker to only $31,050, while a $150,000 worker would be bumped up to $155,250. Legally, all government employees must be treated equally when it comes to pay (though the state seems to have found some workarounds). Why not spend the same aggregate amount as the 3.5% raise by giving a dollar-figure raise instead? Every employee might get a $2,000 raise, say — part-timers’ increase would be pro-rated — which would benefit low-paid employees more than high-paid workers, yet everyone would be treated the same.

On another issue, a council member suggested spending $8,000 to replace signs along MLK Jr. Boulevard that omitted “Historic Airport Road” in small letters under the street name. We could wait a year on that project and instead spend $7,000 restoring the community swimming pool hours. Three days a week were cut from the schedule 7 years ago due to the recession. Swimmers want them back, now that the economy is recovering.

In the area of human services spending, some of us believe that Kidzu should not be rewarded for once again missing the funding request deadline. Last year, council granted Kidzu’s request of $10,000, even though the children’s playspace had missed the funding application deadline. Kidzu wants another $10,000 this year but again busted deadline. Given that the town’s Housing Advisory Board denied a funding request by Empowerment because the minority-run affordable rental agency did not turn in a complete application by deadline, council would have some ’splaining to do if we applied different rules to Kidzu.

And we’re still awaiting information on the budget for consultants.

All of these things and more need to be hashed out publicly. The final budget work session scheduled for tonight has been cancelled because the town manager believes the budget is in good shape.

But, really, we need to talk.
— Nancy Oates

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7 Comments

  1. plurimus

     /  June 6, 2016

    Hi Nancy,

    One way to even out the pay gap is to give a performance bonus. This gets around flat percentage raises and incentivises performance. Of course the question always come down to who does the evaluation and making sure one department is not overly incentivised at the expense of others.

    Swimming vs. signs. It would seem to me that there are other more pressing items to spend the $7-8K on (like debt reduction), but others probably have a different opinion. Benefits are likely subjective, but i think a quick cost/benefit analysis might make the decision easier. How does it compare to raises for teachers or replacing worn out buses?

    Deadlines are final by definition, but it might be interesting to see if there is a common cause for missing them?

    How can the manager cancel a work session without agreement from the TC?

  2. Nancy

     /  June 6, 2016

    My understanding is that bonuses aren’t factored in when calculating retirement pay, so employees prefer to have the actual salary raised.

    Buses, teacher pay and OPEB are all more important in the big picture. But $7K won’t make much of a difference in those big-ticket items. It would make a big difference in the lives of the regular swimmers who have seen their water time cut in half and have waited patiently all these years to get the attention of someone who cares.

    As for how the town manager can cancel a meeting without council’s blessing, I don’t know. I’m new at this.

  3. plurimus

     /  June 6, 2016

    Nancy,

    True about bonuses not being factored in, however the current practice among large employers is to pay employed competitively in the market range and incentives via bonus. The two are complementary and one will not work without the other.

    I am sure from you own budget experience that you know reducing debt amounts to “paying yourself” and sometimes reducing debt has a greater return. Every little bit helps and makes for greater flexibility later.

    I sometimes wonder if the manager knows who he works for.

  4. George C

     /  June 7, 2016

    Nancy,
    I’m surprised that you suggested that we could better spend the money going toward sign replacement for swimming hours given that the Manager sent you an email 4 days earlier telling you that his recommended budget had restored all three days of swimming.
    “The Recommended Budget includes funding for all three days of swimming. Based on the discussion last night, I believe we will add all three days and provide information to council on how that is working. Let me know if I can provide more clear information.”
    Regarding the cancelled work session, it was always on the calendar as “tentative”. The Manager felt that staff didn’t have anything new to present, that all Council members’ questions had been answered (such as your question regarding the swimming hours) either in previous meetings or via email responses (such as the 16 questions and answers I consolidated into the single PDF file), and I believe that the Manager conferred with the Mayor and she concurred that an additional work session was not necessary. If a majority of Council members want(ed) one we could insist on it but I haven’t heard a loud cry for that to happen.

  5. plurimus

     /  June 7, 2016

    George C

    You seem to be missing the main issues. What about Nancy’s point that “….we have not done any long-term planning or strategics about how to maintain or enhance quality of life and what priorities must be shifted to get where we want to go” (this is a pet peeve of mine and I think that budget talks are the perfect context for a broader and much delayed discussion on the “vision thing”)

    What about “….a 3.5% across-the-board pay raise for town employees. However, that will widen the wealth gap. A 3.5% increase would raise the pay of a $30,000-a-year worker to only $31,050, while a $150,000 worker would be bumped up to $155,250.” ? It seems like that at least deserves a common understanding if not agreement on what that means to pension obligations as well as how to incentivise and reward town employees in a flat economic environment.

    Not wanting to speak for Nancy, but reading between the lines I get the feeling that this is just business as usual and there is a lot more to this than siloed .PPT presentations from each department and the manager counting another bean in his list of things to do. The opportunity cost of missing a discussion on strategy going forward seems obvious to the casual observer.

  6. Del Snow

     /  June 8, 2016

    I think that the budget problems are much bigger than the relatively small amounts of money discussed in this thread.
    1. We have a $10 million TIF outstanding that is supposed to be paid back with increased revenues from EF. Applications so far have been minor, and the ones expected are for more high end housing, which I will call revenue neutral at best. My guess is that money will have to be moved from OTHER revenue sources to make the payments on the TIF.
    2. The FBC tried to make the case for the value of density in EF, but by the Town’s own admission, no funds for added transit were assumed. Has there been any discussion of the necessity of increased CH Transit services to avoid the resulting traffic congestion? Traffic congestion undermines economic development. We can’t keep on pushing density (anywhere) without a corresponding rise in transit service.
    3. The Town is considering other TIFs on Town Owned Buildings. Why are we mortgaging the Town?
    4. The Town is trying to sell off its assets to get needed cash.
    I have long argued for a comprehensive look at all of the development going on in town, and after 8 years of keeping my own records, the Town has FINALLY created a similar document. We need a similar analysis of the the economic STRATEGY – one that looks at the consequences of TIFs (plural) and selling Town assets. in the future, not just for the budget year or two.
    In the future, can the Town end up with only a few assets and lots of mortgages, in addition to the current debt (including the $56 million liability for employee health benefits)?

  7. Nancy

     /  June 12, 2016

    George, my questions weren’t for the town manager, they were for other council members. And we can’t have an email conversation among council members without risk of violating the open meetings law. I have been waiting for the scheduled time for council members to discuss things, and maybe that won’t be until Monday night, the same night we are expected to vote on the budget. That seems too late in the process to be effective. Next year I’ll know: Loud cry, beginning in January.

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