The city manager researched Councilmember Moynihan's suggestion that $4 million be budgeted this year for street repairs. His conclusion was that there would have to be major layoffs in public safety (police and fire) to make that much money available for street repairs, the council's stated first priority.
The proposed FY 2003 budget includes $2 million in general reserves and $3.1 million in equipment reserves. There's $5.1 million that could be spent for street repairs. There are other reserves also.
I must agree that it would be nice to have this much money uncommitted in case of need. It should be noted however that five years ago there was no general or equipment reserve fund. And the city survived. Perhaps this should be looked into.
In normal family finances, people like to have a reserve for unexpected expenses. Many families call this a rainy day fund and would expect to use it if the roof leaked when it rained. In the case of the city, our street situation is the equivalent of a leaky roof and perhaps we should consider using these funds for immediate street repair.
The city will soon be asking us to agree to a $40 parcel tax for street repairs. This tax will bring in about $800,000 a year or less than one sixth the money that is just sitting in the general and equipment reserve funds. I'm in favor of the parcel tax but it does seem greedy to ask for one when there is so much money sitting idle just to maintain a reserve. Could it be the reserves are being built up to build the new city hall at the fairgrounds?
Let's talk about timing. If the parcel tax is approved this November, I think that's too late to get it on the tax bill and the city would have to wait until 2004 to start collecting it. The $5.1 million mentioned above can be spent starting right now.
Let's talk about the budget process. If the money Councilmember Moynihan has suggested for street repair had been taken out of the budget as the City Council's first priority (which they say it is), when the City Council came up short at the other end, would they have accepted laying off public safety employees or maybe instead suggested that the reserve funds be used for public safety payroll?
The city budget is very difficult to interpret without having a staff member lead you through it. It's detailed and confusing. And it seems to be being manipulated. For example:
$1.5 million of traffic mitigation funds are being transferred out to other accounts to be used for who knows what. I found that $200,000 is earmarked for the street light program. Traffic mitigation funds are supposed to pay for street or traffic signal improvements. Streetlights don't seem to be a traffic mitigation measure.
These funds have also been earmarked to pay for bicycle paths on the theory that if someone switches from a car to a bicycle that will mitigate traffic congestion. Do you think there will ever be enough bike riders to eliminate traffic congestion?
There will be $500,000 for street reserves left in the budget when we should be spending it for street repairs.
Councilmember Moynihan may be those things listed above. But he is also perceptive and persistent about how the city spends your money. Perhaps this is more important than joining a team that isn't fiscally open or responsive to funding its own publicly stated street repair priority.
The budget is 453 pages long and I'm out of room for this column. Perhaps one of our local papers will continue this concept of "follow the money" and further enlighten us.