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Monday, August 07, 2006

New Brighton Budget Work Session Update

The work session held today lasted a little more than an hour and was actually very enlightening.

The informal session identified, as the meeting slide show called it, the "Budget Pressures" for 2007. The presentation was fairly comprehensive with regard to where the city was looking to spend money. During the accompanying discussion between the council and staff it was pretty apparent who the big spenders are and those who are trying to apply at least some fiscal restraint. It would be worthwhile to catch the replay on cable if you missed it.

The budget process appears to be driven by a "here's how much we need to spend--how are we going to come up with the funding" model. In other words, the process seems to be heavily weighted toward finding sources of revenue rather than finding ways to deliver essential city services at minimal cost. This explains why past budgets have gotten out of control. Instead of prioritizing what is needed and researching the costs from various suppliers to get as many of the high priority items as possible with the available funds (i.e. at most the inflation adjusted amount from last year), the city appears determined to purchase the same goods and services as last time, and maybe some additional things the council thinks would be nice, largely from the same suppliers as last time. If, after finding out how much the desired items would cost now (the prices of most things have gone up), it is determined that there is not enough funds between the inflation adjusted tax revenue, non-tax revenue sources, change found under the cushions of the council chairs and in the coin returns of vending machines and pay phones at City Hall, etc. the force of government would be invoked to obligate taxpayers to "contribute" more regardless of their needs and wants.

Long story short: the timing of the budget process is largely dictated by state law and the proposed city levy must be turned into the state by September 15. The figure the council must approve by then will represent the maximum amount the final levy (which will be voted on in December) can be. This gives our public servants a little over a month to come up with a figure and gives us, the taxpayers, the same amount of time to persuade them to keep it within the bounds of local obscenity laws. The presentation given at today's session seemed to be pushing the council toward a 12-13% levy increase (about the same R-rated figure as last year). Remember that this is only the city portion of the levy and the tax bite will get even worse when the big spending redistributionists from the county, school board, and other "taxing authorities" stick their big-spending fingers into the pie.

It's obvious that setting the levy upper limit to a ridiculously high level and possibly negotiating it down later is not in the best interest of the taxpayers. If the level is set high enough the council could easily go through the motions of throwing an angry mob of taxpayers a bone or two at the Truth in Taxation hearing in December without any meaningful constraints on spending. As taxpayers we need to pressure the council to set this initial figure as low as possible, especially given the past propensity of the council to impose tax increases of 2-3 times the rate of inflation.

There are two more budget work sessions between now and the September 11 council meeting where the proposed levy will be approved (8/21 and 8/29 at 4:30 PM in the council chambers). It is within this time period that the council members need to be guided toward a reasonable budget to keep the final levy as low as possible. The budget sessions will be open to the public and televised, but there will probably be little or no opportunity to directly offer commentary to the council. It would be best to let them know your thoughts and feelings through phone calls, e-mail, and letters.

Links to contact the mayor and individual council members can be found on the New Brighton city web site.

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