Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany from 1871 to 1890, has been widely quoted (though perhaps not accurately) as saying that “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.”
If Bismarck were still alive, he might make a similar observation after having seen the Platteville Common Council pass the city’s 2013 budget. (Hence the headline.)
City Manager Larry Bierke started the public hearing by pointing out that the city had reduced its operating budget by 1.7 percent, had reduced borrowing for capital expenses, and had kept the same rate for the past two years — the same mil rate in the 2013 budget, $7.23 per $1,000 assessed valuation.
That last statement was rendered moot 45 minutes later, when the Common Council passed a budget that instead increased municipal spending and increased the mil rate.
Some of that was necessary because health and dental insurance bids turned a $9,010 surplus into a $4,343 deficit, as your favorite weekly newspaper reported Nov. 21.
Because one should say something positive before criticism: The council did make the correct decision in cutting the $15,000 for studying consolidating city and Grant County dispatch, as recommended in this column previously for reasons noted in this column previously.
That turned the $4,000 deficit into an $11,000 surplus. Problem solved, right? To quote ESPN’s Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend.
Ald. Eileen Nickels pushed for a 1 percent pay increase for nonunion city employees, who saw their hours cut from 40 hours per week to 37 hours per week one year ago, which, assuming the same salary level, is a 7.5-percent pay cut. Whether city employees deserve a pay increase is not the issue; paying for pay increases is the issue.
At this point, you might wonder how many council members read this newspaper, or, for that matter, how many council members think about what they’re proposing. Raising employee pay means that the 2014 budget, and every budget thereafter, will have increased employee compensation costs, because every nonunion employee’s base pay has been increased. The council could have made a move with the exact same dollar impact and the exact same money in the employee’s pockets by giving bonuses equal to 1 percent of a nonunion employee’s pay. The employee’s base pay would have remained the same, however, which meant next year’s council could decide whether there was enough money for employee raises. That option wasn’t even introduced Nov. 27.
Nickels then made the comment that the estimated $10 in additional taxes (actually, about $6.82) on a home assessed at $150,000 to pay for those pay raises might mean one less pizza night or not having dessert with dinner at a restaurant, and “if you surveyed residents” about increasing city employee pay, “I think they’d say yes.”
That is on top of the garbage collection fee of $60 per single-family house and $120 per duplex included in the 2013 budget, as pointed out by Ald. Steve Becker. That is also on top of sharply higher ambulance fees that were enacted by the council as part of a policy decision to make Platteville EMS as self-supporting as possible. Ald. Barb Daus pointed out earlier this year that, yes, someone will have to pay those higher ambulance fees — your insurance company if you need the ambulance, and everyone’s insurance company for those who can’t afford the ambulance fee.
Cutting back on that kind of discretionary spending means less money in the pockets of Platteville business owners and their employees if you follow through on Nickels’ example. A lot of Platteville residents haven’t gotten pay increases in years; some have gotten pay cuts. All of those people will now be paying higher property taxes, directly as homeowners and/or indirectly as renters and local business customers.
Again, this is not about whether city employees deserve pay raises. If the council decided city employees should get pay raises, that should have been considered well before Nov. 27. Pay increases, however structured, should have been introduced early in the budget, which would have given the council much of October and all of November to figure out how to pay for those pay increases through either cuts or revenue increases elsewhere in the budget. As it is, the council spent three months swinging between budget cuts and restoring budget cuts for reasons of varying validity.
(One budget cut the council didn’t consider: How about eliminating the $18,000 the city spends on aldermanic pay in 2013? The Platteville School Board does an arguably better job with its responsibilities — see the state school report cards and Platteville school rankings — and is paid nothing. The non-aldermen who serve on city committees, commissions and boards don’t get paid either. If you surveyed city residents about who deserves their pay more, city employees or the Common Council, I think I know which they’d choose.)
The four aldermen who voted for a budget with higher taxes — Nickels, Daus and Alds. Patrice Steiner and Ken Kilian — voted the wrong way. Not because they were also the four aldermen who voted for the pay increases. They voted the wrong way because increasing taxes was the wrong position. The economy is in a state best described as a Recovery In Name Only. We live in a state that has the fifth highest state and local taxes in the U.S., something about which the Legislature has done nothing. The Grant County Board of Supervisors increased county property taxes. And on Jan. 1, all the federal tax cuts enacted a decade ago will go away. There may be an appropriate time to increase taxes; this year is not that time.
The way the Common Council decided the city’s 2013 budget — after a budget hearing in which no one spoke in opposition to the budget as it existed at the start of the meeting — makes you wonder how the council decides city issues.