One piece of feedback I got from last week’s column about the 2013 City of Platteville budget was a three-word sentence in a text message: “City needs leadership.”
That is a common complaint among cities with city manager–council forms of government. The City of Platteville is set up more like a school district than a city, with the city manager’s role analogous to a school district administrator, and the city council comparable to a school board. In Platteville’s case, voters can vote for the alderman representing their district plus one of the three at-large aldermen every April. Platteville voters can’t vote for a mayor, because there isn’t one; Platteville has a city council president, but he or she is voted on by the council, not the voting public.
This column is not about whether a city manager is preferable to a mayor, however. Between what I’ve personally witnessed and what comes across my desk from area newspapers each week, there are good mayors and there are bad mayors. Both are the credit or fault of voters. Recall Winston Churchill’s observation that democracy was the second worst form of government, with all the others tying for worst.
Leadership doesn’t necessarily depend on titles, or for that matter the structure of municipal government. Leadership doesn’t take place when you throw out comments in meetings that then are not acted upon or followed up later. Leadership is helping reach a consensus, or convincing others to back your own vision.
The issue as manifested in the 2013 budget, however, isn’t leadership. It’s planning beyond the next budget year. The city has a Capital Improvement Plan to cover the next few years of capital spending. After nearly seven months of going to meetings, I have yet to see a broader vision for the city from those Platteville voters elect to represent them, in the operation of the city. (If there is one, the council hasn’t communicated it very well.)
This lack of vision and planning came up at in at least three different areas in the budget process. Budgets are policy documents, because where a unit of government spends money shows what that unit of government’s elected representatives finds important. (Beyond various higher-level mandates, that is.) But because the budget process has a deadline, the budget process at any level is not usually a place where long-range planning takes place beyond the next budget year. City spending can be evaluated as a dollars-and-cents issue, but it doesn’t appear to have been evaluated on its value — whether taxpayers are getting the best services for the least tax money.
Consider the issue of economic development. Ald. Barb Daus correctly pointed out that it was illogical for the same people who identified economic development as the number one priority of city government to then cut $20,000 from the four economic development bodies to which the city gives money — the Main Street Program, Platteville Business Incubator, Platteville Area Industrial Development Corp., and Grant County Economic Development Corp.
In response, Ald. Steve Becker suggested that some of those economic development bodies were better investments than others. That’s a point worth exploring. Was it? Not as far as anyone who attends council meetings can tell. Once the budget picture improved, $12,000 of that money was restored without anyone evaluating whether the city is getting its economic development money’s worth from any of those organizations.
Then there’s the subject of the Rollo Jamison Museum. At least the museum came up relatively early in the budget process. It’s not helpful, though, to introduce a major change in city services without finding out first whether it’s even legal, let alone feasible to work out in a couple of months. At least a committee is going to work to answer the question of whether the spinoff of the museum to a nonprofit-to-be-named-later is legal or feasible. That, however, should have been done separate from the budget process, because the future of the museum goes well beyond one year in city operations.
Another area, as I pointed out here last week, was the issue of raises for the city’s nonunion employees. If a majority of the council wanted to increase employee pay, why wasn’t that part of the initial budget, or one of its early iterations? The $32,000 pay increases add to city expenses could have been dealt with much easier early on, instead of adding them at the very end of the budgeting process and assuming that city property taxpayers, who are already paying $60 next year for garbage removal, will be just fine with a property tax increase on top of that.
Current and potential future staffing is an issue with at least two aldermen. Common Council President Mike Dalecki said, “In all honesty there are places we can cut our labor costs. There is still fat in the system.” Interesting point. Will we hear anything more about this? Will we hear anything about where the “fat in the system” is, and where labor costs can be cut more?
Ald. Ken Kilian continues to be an opponent of the city staffing plan devised by City Manager Larry Bierke, saying most recently that it has “too much money being spent on management.” Another interesting point. (Even though Bierke’s staffing plan reduces payroll, at least payroll that is part of the city’s budget.) When will Kilian (or an alderman who agrees with Kilian) follow through with an alternative staffing plan?
City staffing is also an issue that goes far beyond one year’s budget. The purpose of government is to perform the services that are required of that unit of government — in this case, to quote Dalecki from October, beginning with police, fire, EMS, roads, water and sewer, and garbage disposal. Staffing levels and pay scales should be based on the best way to perform city services, not on any other criteria.
Taxpayers should ask their elected officials for their vision for the city, as well as their views on the value of current city spending. They should ask the same questions of candidates.