The Platteville Common Council will vote on the city’s 2015 budget after its public hearing Tuesday night. Before that, the city is holding a budget informational session at the Platteville Police Department Thursday night.
This is the third city budget process I’ve covered for your favorite weekly newspaper. I can’t say I’ve been particularly impressed with any of them.
I was once asked why I covered the budget meetings and didn’t merely report on the end result, which is what most people care about. The reason is that in politics, the process is almost as important as the result, because of what the process reveals.
The process generally has revealed, at least since I’ve lived in the 53818 area code, spending that doesn’t necessarily align with the Common Council’s stated priorities, and spending decisions made later than they should be made in the budget process. Two years ago, after a council retreat in which economic development was determined to be the city’s top priority, an early version of the budget reduced economic development spending. (Now, economic development funding comes from the city’s Tax Incremental Financing districts, two of which needed contributions from positive-revenue TIF districts because their expenses vastly exceeded the revenues they generated.) That same year, a pay increase for city employees was added at the end of the budget process, which makes you think that either (1) political games were played to get the pay increase (paid for by a property tax increase), or (2) a pay increase wasn’t really a priority, since it wasn’t part of the budget from the beginning.
The past three years of budgets have proven one axiom of politics. Spending is never prioritized when it appears that there is plenty of money; spending is only prioritized when it appears that money is short. At the start of the budget process, the growth in the city’s property values appeared to allow the city to not raise taxes. And then city hourly employees got their 40-hour work week back, and the obligatory health insurance premium increase exceeded what was expected. Red ink followed black ink.
Here’s an example of why and how the process is important. The three hours per week are being added despite no evidence that city services aren’t being delivered appropriately at 37 hours per week, nor that they will be delivered better at 40 hours per week. (Although getting 40 hours a week out of city employees is a better deal for city taxpayers than getting 37 hours a week at higher pay, as happened the last two years. And those who got three more hours per week will probably have their increased pay sucked up by higher insurance contributions.)
Part of the problem is focusing on fairness — treating all city hourly employees the same — instead of providing the best service for city residents at the least cost to city taxpayers. Some employees need to work 40 hours a week, and some do not, based on their job responsibilities and whether their job is part of the city’s essential services — police, fire, EMS, streets, and water and sewer. It isn’t that jobs that fall outside those services aren’t important, but they aren’t as important as public safety, streets, and water and sewer.
The annual budget process is also the annual evidence that the city doesn’t follow through on issues that come up during the budget process. Two years ago, former Ald. Steve Becker suggested, during a period where budget-cutting was needed, that the city may not be getting its money’s worth from the various economic development organizations to which it contributes. As far as anyone outside the Municipal Building knows, no one ever followed up on Becker’s observation.
Nor, as we know from a letter on this page last week, has the city done very much about last year’s recommendations from the Museum Task Force. The task force’s recommendations included reducing the annual city contribution to the museums’ budget to $175,000 next year and eventually $100,000 by 2019. There is no such decrease in the museum’s 2015 budget. And no one connected with the city has said whether the city is implementing the plan to spin off the museum or not, including the task force’s proposed room tax increase to help fund museum operations.
You may recall that at least one member of the Common Council felt that not enough had been done to economize city operations during a previous budget process. The fact that that alderman was defeated in the following election doesn’t mean that he wasn’t correct about the city’s not-entirely-functional budgeting process. (Sometimes the messenger gets in the way of the message.) City Manager Larry Bierke made an ominous statement about large-pricetag items coming up in future budgets in a previous meeting. Meanwhile, the city’s proposed annexation of the Platteville Municipal Airport out of the Town of Platteville appears to have no rationale beyond getting more property taxes from the current hangar owners.
Unless better budget decisions are made between now and Nov. 25, the 2015 budget process demonstrates again that the Common Council needs to budget better.