At the risk of flogging a deceased equine, I will make this my last column on the city’s 2012 budget. For now.
The budget process in Elgin is the most visible, transparent, participatory and fluid process in the city’s history. City Manager Sean Stegall assembled a committee of residents to explore options and make recommendations. The media has covered the discussions. Video is available to watch the debates. The public was invited and encouraged to weigh-in n the various cuts, fees and taxes currently on the table. Columns have been written. BocaJump has a live Twitter feed on our home page, streaming information and opinions.
This differs from past practices most remarkably in that all this is done BEORE the budget is agreed upon. Many years ago, the council would discuss and make its budget decisions, deflecting public comment until the budget was assembled. At that point, often moments before it was officially passed, a pointless public hearing would be held at which Elginites could make comments. Council members would smile politely and pass the budget they had already agreed upon.
So, whether the council decides to act in the manner of which you approve, you had a chance to see it all and comment on it before decisions were made.
You will have a second chance to speak to the council again, in about 16 months when the next City Council election is scheduled. Traditionally, council members who either raise taxes or fire city managers don’t fare well in the next election. This next election may prove the exception because of the dire nature of the city’s financial situation and the transparency of the process.
But candidates who run on the notion that the city should have cut $13 million and not raise a single fee or tax must be immediately disregarded as incompetent to serve. Closing the Centre, the golf courses, the pools, and the museums to save money is lunacy, a notion worthy of immediate commitment to a mental institution. Rendering your city devoid of any character, recreation or leisure opportunities or unique, defining qualities destroys its viability for years to come.
Cuts are necessary but so, unfortunately, are revenue increases. This is a big city with a lot of streets to plow, parks to maintain, fire stations to man, and amenities to staff and it takes a lot of revenue to operate those departments. But personnel cuts will be made and it seems likely that the higher the salary, the greater the exposure. But don’t assume that everyone at the city is overpaid. Hiring people at the lowest possible salary invites only the most desperate, weak and unemployable to run the machinery.
The public’s reaction, then, will hinge on just what fees, tax hikes and cuts are enacted.
Daily reminders of those cuts and increases are likely to produce an angry electorate, which was the basis for my earlier column warning of a severe adverse reaction to multiple fee increases and taxes which nibble away at our willingness to share some pain for the greater good. For example, a sales tax increase is smart because it vanishes into the cost of items purchased. One large fee increase, like a trash collection fee, can be tolerated. But not a half dozen new fees. Then it feels like we’re being nibbled to death by a duck.
Lastly, two thoughts: One, for God’s sakes, move over money from the Grand Victoria casino into the general fund. It was a noble notion to keep that separate to be used only for capital items and it worked for a while. But it was not a sacred trust. Times have changed and either you move over $2 million or you gouge it out of us.
And don’t use that as an excuse to covertly fund all the social service agencies and programs. The money is available, usable, valid coin of the realm and it is less that you will have to take from us.
Lastly, I agree with Stegall that overtime for city employees is unavoidable, with one major caveat.
It is true that one cannot budget for a major snowstorm, large fire or police investigation. When 27 inches of snow fell, it took a major amount of overtime to keep the streets passable and the public works department by all account performed superbly. That was legitimate, necessary overtime.
But having been a manager, I also know that overtime is a way to give yourself a raise or, to give a favored employee a raise. The need to work overtime must be assessed and approved by a supervisor who then becomes responsible for justifying it to a superior. Court appearances by police are understandable. But can we really be sure that all $6 million in overtime was absolutely necessary? Is it possible to enact a budget that anticipates $8 million to $10 million in savings and revenues and realizes the additional $2 million to 4 million in better management of staff time to reduce overtime?
Just a thought.