(April 23, 2012) -- They are living in a fiscal dream world.
Last Tuesday's (April 17) single item special Council session (5:00-6:00 p.m., ran to 6:30) was originally advertised as an opportunity for management to present revenue enhancement options but inexplicably morphed into a power point presentation identifying several new tax schemes the Council could try and enact. A seemingly disappointed Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske said, "I am a little concerned, when we ask for revenue measures, the only thing that is brought back to us is taxes."
And I'm more than little concerned.
Now I wonít waste your time to discuss all of the tax plans staff presented except to say they were numerous, mostly regressive and some were more offensive than others. What I found noteworthy about the meeting was once again there doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency exhibited by this Mayor and Council to resolve our decades long slide in to a fiscal black hole.
One bright spot came when Councilwoman Schipske listed several examples of "fiscal first aid" that she'd found online, identifying measures that cities use to increase revenue without raising taxes. The response? City Manager West indicated management plans to bring in an "expert" to "review all departments for reform or efficiencies." And Mayor Foster indicated these ideas would be discussed during the Budget Sessions (months away).
Whaaaat? What about NOW or why not last year or two years ago or five years ago? What are they waiting for? Perhaps after their next elections?
Another thing that caught my attention from the meeting was just how "flexible" some of their core principles and fiscal policies seem to be.
Mayor Foster seems to have had a policy transplant. He now says he doesn't want to impose new taxes on residents until they explore efficiencies and reforms with contracting out or privatization of city services. He even goes out of his way to snipe at Councilwoman Rae Gabelich every time she advocates imposing new taxes.
Is this the same Mayor Foster that raised over $650,000 and spent months speaking all over town promoting his fiscally flawed Measure I (Nov. 2008) tax-and-spend scheme? It is the same guy who said (Aug. 2009, Historical Society of LB Q & A with Supervisor Don Knabe) that the defeated measure "was the right thing to do and I would do it again...I think it should have been done. I'm sad it didn't pass but I'm not adverse to trying again."
Could this change of heart have anything to do with his paperwork-indicated desire to run for State Treasure? So much for core principles!
And what about Budget Chair DeLong who supported Measure I with votes, contributions and support and was even offered up for a Press Club Measure I debate [that the Mayor didn't attend]. Now that DeLong is running for Congress, he now declares the City "should be looking at privatizing some of our services" and believes there are "significant and dramatic expense savings in probably the tens of millions of dollars that could be achieved." If what you say is true what in the world have you been waiting for over the past five years?
At the end of the Council meeting both Foster and Gabelich indicated irritation at what a few of the public speakers said at the podium. And frankly their irritation was partially justified as it is not true that the Council and Management have not done anything to fix the pension and budget problems. They have made painful cuts in products, services and staff and realigned departments to reduce duplication of services. But it is clear that the Mayor and Council have not done enough as the City has faced multimillion dollar deficits every single year of their administration and there has been a measurable lack of urgency to make major structural changes in how resources are managed.
The most recent example of a lack of oversight is the roughly $36 million in uncollected parking fines (2003-2011). Revenue from fines has been declining each year since 2009 and there is no evidence that the decline in revenue was addressed by this Mayor and Council. A zero based budget review would have brought this variance to light EVERY YEAR and forced resolution.
Or what about maximizing towing revenue before considering privatization? Or reorganizing or privatizing fleet services? Or eliminating project labor agreements? Or, as Councilwoman Schipske suggested, auditing overtime or workers comp claims? Or enhanced purchasing? Or just "picking the low hanging fruit"?
And why haven't we had a wage and hiring freeze over the past five years. Or if we were really serious about becoming fiscal responsible, why did Mayor Foster support opening up contracts with city employee unions before they were up -- and then supporting giving them multiyear contracts -- when one year contracts for police, fire and IAM unions were warranted until our budget crisis was over?
And why didnít the Mayor and Council lead by example by cutting their budgets to the bone, reducing staff, eliminating non essential travel, eliminating entertainment expenses, eliminating their requests for non essential staff reports?
And why do the Mayor and Council continue to put forth vanity agenda items on a regular basis that consume staff time and have little to do with our quality of life or improving our fiscal problems?
And given just how broke we are, why do the Mayor and Council think it OK to spend what they call "one time money" on
Frankly, I donít think it is Management that deserves the criticism for this. It is the Mayor and Council that make and set policy that Management must follow. And to date, the Mayor and Council have not formally outlined just what is an essential city service that must be funded before any other expenditures are made.
"Mayor Foster indicated, "until you are pushed," until you are taken "out of your comfort zone," nothing will happen and he said "we are not there yet." I don't know what it will take to get the Mayor and Council to understand that residents are "not comfortable" with the level of services provided or the condition of our infrastructure.
Imposing new taxes is like giving in to a desperate alcoholic pleading for just one more little drink to "get them over the hump" and they will forever change their ways. Giving the Mayor and Council more money won't fix our problem and will only give them a reason not to make fundamental changes in how they manage our money.
It is because of this lack of strong fiscal policy that I would not support ANY NEW TAXES unless the Mayor and Council start acting like they are really serious about resolving our fiscal problems. And this must start now! It is a constant struggle not to be ignored until a few weeks before the budget is due.
Previously on LBReport.com: Common Sense by Terry Jensen (continuing series):
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