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Sunday, November 30, 2008

New Brighton Truth in Taxation Hearing - Monday 12/1 6:30 PM

A lot of us are politically burned out after the grueling national and state campaigns and the carnage of the last election, so it is tempting to just tune out and let local politics run on autopilot. Unfortunately this is often how local government can sneak out-of-control spending and budgets under the public radar until it is too late to stop it.

The New Brighton City Council will hold a Truth in Taxation Hearing this Monday, December 1, at 6:30 PM in the Council Chambers at City Hall. This is the last chance for the public to hold our elected officials accountable for how they want to spend our money. And given the big spending propensity of the past by the city, it is in our interests to show up and be heard.

Unlike a few years ago when the city had a few well-publicized meetings and work sessions there has been little information released to the public regarding the budget and property tax process. Even those of us who keep up with the goings on at the City Council meetings and work sessions have heard very little as to what has been going on leading up to the hearing on Monday. Generally when government operates under the radar the result is less than optimal for those who pay the bill.

The situation in New Brighton is conducive to budgetary shenanigans. The general economic downturn of the state and country is going to make the already troubled Northwest Quadrant redevelopment and the related financial fallout even more troublesome. The residents are starting to catch on about the financial time-bomb the project has created and the temptation for city government to go into CYA mode will surely be present. There is only so much "creative" financing, manipulation of TIF, grants and other "free" money from other levels of government, and administrative slight-of-hand that can be employed to put off the day of financial reckoning, and most have already been tapped to the limit.

City government, with the exception of a couple of council members (primarily Gina Bauman along with Sharon Doffing), has not given any indication that it is willing to cut actual spending or significantly reduce the city employee head count in times of tight money. The city appears to be very top heavy with department heads, assistant department heads, and other highly compensated employees. Although not pleasant, the need for workforce reductions are a fact of business life in the private sector as a means of keeping an enterprise viable. The current tough financial times should also drive city government to make the same hard decisions for the good of the financially strapped taxpayers. In the past the city has not seen fit to truly question the need for such a level of staffing and compensation, and has not (other than the previously noted exceptions) indicated any inclination to do so this year.

Mayor Larson has also been talking up the prospect of the city receiving LGA (local government aid) payments from the state as an excuse to not have to cut spending or cut back on non-essential services and spending. He has a record of putting the perceived needs and wants of "his" city bureaucracy ahead of the financial well being of the taxpayers. He and Councilmember Mary Burg have been the biggest drivers of bad decisions by the council with regard to the Northwest Quadrant redevelopment and have shown no willingness to concede the failure of the project. They also have been the most resistant to cutting spending and unnecessary services when the budget has been debated.

Councilmember Bauman has been the most vocal advocate of budgetary constraint and limited government on the council and will more than likely lead the charge on Monday to see that the city starts to run its finances in a more responsible way, but she cannot do it alone. Councilmember Doffing also has a proven track record and can be counted on to look out for the interests of the taxpayers. Newcomer David Phillips has demonstrated some good fiscal positions in his first year on the job, but this will be the first time residents will see how he approaches the city budget. As noted earlier, Mayor Larson and Councilmember Burg are probably a lost cause as far as initiating any budgetary constraint, but it has been shown that they can be convinced into voting the correct way (e.g. the unanimous vote by the council for eminent domain reform by the city) if enough constituent pressure is applied.

The council chambers have been packed on occasion when the matter at hand has been an animated sign or a land-use variance request. It would be encouraging to those of us who value responsible, limited government to see some of the same tenacity and energy on Monday night where a large, vocal, and determined showing by New Brighton residents will go a long way toward getting New Brighton city government to begin to get its financial house in order.

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