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What doesn't get done is also important
Jack Balshaw 2/20/02

Most people, when they look at a governmental budget, are interested in and focus on how much is being spent for what. This may be generally appropriate but it misses the important point of being aware of what things aren't getting done. It's really pretty simple. There's only so much money and once that's spent (or budgeted) there's no money left to do anything else.

It's fairly simple to look at a list of projects or programs or special studies and say, "I like that, I don't like that, etc." What's difficult is to look at the same list and realize what isn't listed at all. The way budgets are put together; it's easy to assume that something you're expecting to be funded is simply hidden in a larger number covering the general area. Often it isn't. It isn't funded at all.

While the public may be interested in fixing roads, they pay no attention to money being budgeted for sound walls and bicycle lanes. What they don't realize is that much of the money spent for those items could have been spent fixing roads.

This is what's happening in our City budget. Money that was to have been used for a new wastewater treatment plant has been used for other purposes. Money that was to be used to construct Rainier is being used to improve the Washington/McDowell intersection. Money that was to be used for redevelopment has been used for the flood fix.

It's very easy for the public to get confused about governmental budgets. Most of us get our money from one or two sources and, once we have the money, we can use it for anything we want. Governments get their money from many sources and many of these sources limit the use of that money to specific uses. This creates much confusion, as the budgeting body has to massage its budget to meet the requirements for use of specific funds. However, it also sets the stage for imaginative budgeting.

Money from the hotel tax, which is supposed to be used to promote Petaluma, has been mostly transferred to the General Fund. This money can then be used for anything. By saying that its use to support police, fire, recreation and streets improves Petaluma's image and thereby encourages businesses to locate in Petaluma, this transfer is justified. Who knows what might have been done if this money hadn't been swallowed up in the general fund?

Money from the redevelopment agency is probably the most abused. This money is supposed to spur development that will help Petaluma economically. The auto row, which provides almost one quarter of Petaluma's sales tax, came about because redevelopment money was used to lower the cost of development enough that the auto dealers located here instead of in Novato. And every year, forever, Petaluma will benefit from the sales tax dollars collected.

But much of this money was also used to pay for the Payran "flood fix" which had no economic benefits to the city at all. It was great that those subject to flooding benefited but that's not what the money was to meant to be used for. Next year, the city will use this money to pay for a big part of the General Plan on the premise that the redevelopment area benefits from the General Plan. Who knows what economic development could have been created with this money?

But the biggest diversion of funds will be when the street improvement funds (to be voted on in November) are used for administrative and non-construction purposes. Up to 30% will go to city staff, overhead and inspectors. These are costs that should come out of the general fund and that means many less streets will be repaired.

How money is spent matters because it also determines what doesn't get done.


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