Be brave! It’s almost over! Just this one last report and you will never have to read about the budget ever, ever again. Until next year – which the city council promises will be worse.
So, pour yourself a strong one, Dear Readers. You deserve it for even trying to follow the budget process. But don’t start guzzling until you finish this report – you’ll need all your brain cells wide awake and sober.
After all, this is the budget year that featured a five percent cut of the city’s property tax county rebate, followed by a 20 percent cut to the remaining portion of the rebate which was initially passed by the county council but recommended by the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee to be restored in the council reconciliation process – not in full, but in two parts of 10 percent each, however only one of those recommended restorations was made, leaving the city $300,000 shorter than it had expected.
On second thought, we all might as well start drinking now.
The city does, at last, have a budget! Now that the county, having passed its budget, can’t kick any more stepladders out from under her, the city manager submitted a nearly 25 million dollar budget. The council approved it – along with the cuts, fees, and fiddling it required to come out right.
But how about this, Dear Readers? No new taxes!
You read right. The city manager and council held the tax rate steady! Your property tax is not going up – if you are a homeowner. BUT, If you apply for a tree permit, pay for trash collection at your apartment or condo, or rent city facilities or fields, the fees are going up.
The city manager saved money by spending money. City manager Barbara Matthews pulled an additional $500,000 from the city’s reserve funds – a sort of city savings account for big expenses such as new vehicles and equipment. That money will be used to fund the Public Works Dept. renovations.
How does that save money? It reduces the amount the city has to borrow, “thus reducing the debt payments by about $50,000,” in the next budget year, according to deputy city manager Suzanne Ludlow.
In a session so confusing that even some participants admitted they were lost, Matthews and the council reconciled the budget May 24. Matthews offered a number of options – cuts such as laying off another part-time library book-shelver, and expenses such as repairing Ethan Allen Avenue. The council weighed the pros and cons while trying to calculate the costs and savings. They were striving to find an a combination that persevered the most services, jobs, and savings.
Bewildered councilmembers counting on their fingers and toes make a sad spectacle.
Finally the council took a long break while the staff tallied straw votes and figures. Following are some of the results. We had to ask Suzanne Ludlow for the info later, we couldn’t follow this for beans, and we still can’t promise we got it right. The fog of war is nothing compared to the gumbo of budget reconciliation.
As previously mentioned, $500,000 was taken from reserve funds to reduce the bond loan, saving $50,000.
The library part-time shelver was not laid off, and the hours not cut, costing $15,000.
Ethan Allen Avenue repair work was shelved, saving $145,000
The city suspended streetlight replacement and installations, saving $20,000.
Multifamily housing units will be charged $143 per unit yearly for refuse collection, up from the current $115.
Pending a change in the city code. The city will charge a $50 processing fee for a tree permit application and a $75-$100 processing fee for a tree protection plan permit application. Projected revenue is $7500.
Also discussed was potential revenue from the new auditorium, where the council was meeting for the first time since the renovation. Councilmember Dan Robinson, a gold prospector’s gleam in his eye, speculated that the room could easily net at least $10,000 a year Terry Seamens reminded him of last year’s speculated but unrealized income from speed cameras.
Class War Skirmish
Angry residents and city employees turned out for the last two meetings. The hot exchange of resentments and misconceptions was illuminating, and perhaps each side came away with a better appreciation of the other
Librarian, union representative, and recent Azalea Award-winner Dave Burbank fought to the bitter end to save jobs with a tax rate hike. At this and the last council meeting he stressed how small the effect of a tax raise would be on individual taxpayers. “A postage stamp a day,” is how he described the cost of the 3 cent raise discussed May 17. Each half cent raise means only an extra $15 to $35 a year to taxpayers he said May 24.
Outraged homeowners, including Roger Schlegel, last election’s mayoral challenger, objected. A tax increase by itself may seem small, they said, but it is would be on top of yearly tax payments from $6000 to $15,000 or more.
Many residents, they said, already have a hard time paying their property taxes, which have been steadily rising as property values increase. Moreover, even when taxes do not go up many long time residents get an annual 10% tax increase because of the way the county gradually brings property taxes up to the newly assessed value of the home.
One homeowner objected that the city already has the highest tax rate in the county. She said she too was a moderate-income public servant, as are many city residents. Other homeowners are retirees on a fixed income. So, most city homeowners are not the fat cats the employees seem to think they are. She urged the council to take a hard look at services, cut back, and reduce.
Burbank, president of the city-employee AFSCME chapter, persisted, noting that city property values are high and stable, so homeowners, even those of modest income, are sitting on a good deal more wealth than city-employed wage earners are. Takoma Park property values are high because of the services city employees provide, he said. He suggested that a resident “might not be able to retire here, but if she does retire and decides to sell her house, the value she’d get from that sale would be higher” due to city services. Burbank also suggested cost cutting measures that would not lay off employees or raise taxes.
Schlegel urged the council not to raise taxes. He said that would send the wrong message to the county. It would tell the county that if it withheld city rebate money, the city would let them do it, and just make up the difference by raising taxes. He urged the city to tighten its belt, restructure, scale back major purchases, such as a new street sweeper, and scale back the Public Works renovation. He said that he’d much rather the city save money by not spending it on “stuff,” rather than eliminating jobs.
The newly renovated auditorium itself is not so shiny, but all the foreheads in the room are. On television the new wooden stage and back wall look muddy brown. It is the only regrettable color choice in the room, but unfortunately, cable tv or internet stream viewers don’t see the tasteful new chairs, carpeting, wall decorations, and state-of-the-art lighting in the ceiling. In person, it has a much better effect.
The lighting is strong, too strong if you ask us. Which nobody has. But that won’t stop Your Gilbert!
We miss the normal, flat lighting of the old auditorium. The glaring overhead light over the citizen comment podium creates regrettable sunken-eyes effects and shows, er, middle-age character to disadvantage. Given the preponderance of baby boomers in the population and on the staff, this will lead to dangerous levels of wincing. We urge any resident or staff-person wishing to address the council to wear an umbrella hat. Otherwise, resist watching yourself in the recording. You’ll be sorry!
We also miss the informality of the Azalea Room, AND of the councilmembers. Talk of budget cuts, layoffs, and department elimination were a lot easier to take when the casually attired council were chatting around cafeteria tables. Watching such discussions in opulent surroundings by the council swanked up in suits and ties was jarring.
Perhaps they were being intentionally ironic. Please, council, go back to the jeans and t-shirts!