Anello on 2019 NF Budget: The Hard Truth Lawmakers Cannot Escape

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By: Vince Anello

The annual dance of the line by line review of the mayor’s proposed budget is nothing more than a ritual to which we have become accustomed. No more productive than harvest rituals and rain dances, but it makes us feel good. The only question on the table should be what level of service can the taxpayers of our city afford and what services do they really want?  Do the taxpayers want the same level of service they received the previous year? How much more will that level of service cost? Where does the city get the additional revenue?

In three of the last four years our city has spent more than the City Council and the Mayor budgeted. No one on the City Council took any action to stop the over spending. Some of them were able to slip in a few impressive sounding soundbites and reached into the casino revenue money barrel to fill the gap.

Why am I concerned? Because like you, I am a taxpayer. Unlike many of you, I worked on 10 city budgets. Six as a councilmember and four as the mayor.

In 2004 I inherited a $3.5 million deficit left by the previous administration. There is no law against voting for an unbalanced budget. You can do it and cover it up with misinformation. That’s how the 2004 budget was passed with a structural deficit.

When I left office in December 2007, I left the present administration an $8.5 million fund balance and $38 million in casino revenue. We are now facing what may become a financial meltdown.

There have been plenty of warnings. In 2013 the State Comptroller warned the city that it was becoming too dependent on casino revenue for the day to day operation of the city. It fell on deaf ears.

In 2016 the City Council’s own Financial Advisory Board analyzed the city’s finances and came to the same conclusion. Some councilmembers berated some members of that board. I have personally spoken at City Council meetings expressing the same concerns. I too was scorned by some members of the City Council. Our city government, which includes the mayor, doesn’t like to take any advice.

In the last 10 years we have used about $80.5 million of casino revenue to balance the budget. Everyone seems to love that spending philosophy.

The mayor has been reelected three times. In 2017 our city had about 563 full-time employees. Some have reached and passed the $200,000 mark. The individual fringe benefit package of approximately one third is then added. I’m sure an argument can be made that each worker deserves every penny of it. Without substantial tax increases and additional recurring revenue sources this level of service is unsustainable; with or without casino revenue.

An often-used feel-good Council action is a Spending Freeze. This headline grabbing action is a joke. It never accomplished one dime’s worth of savings.

The State Tax Cap is another Joke. The City Council can, and has, voted to override it several times.

The latest joke is that the proposed 2019 budget includes a property tax decrease. So, city government is scratching for money but at the same time they are suggesting a tax decrease. I believe this could easily be classified as “blowing smoke”.

The recent introduction of a refuse fee is a way to move $3.1 million of expenses outside of our customary budget process. Even though some of our revenue streams have increased, this budget is starving for more money. The City Council could reject the refuse fee and increase taxes by $3.1 million or cut $3.1 million from the workforce. Neither will happen.

What our city needs is a 10-year plan that includes a spending cap. A five-year plan works well for cities that are financially disciplined and stable. Our city has proven to be neither. If the City council won’t do it, then the taxpayers must insist on it. No viable plan can work without full participation and support of the city unions.

If you plan on being a property owner for the next 5 to 10 years, a property tax increase is in your future. The earlier it’s addressed the less painful it would be for taxpayers and employees alike.

Let us organize to encourage city government to pass a law that would institute a no holds barred spending cap. If they can’t muster up the political will to do it, the voters can and must. I’m prepared to help.

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