Public Forum on the Budget – August 23

The City is holding a public forum on the budget at 7 pm on Monday, August 23 in the City Council chambers.  From the announcement for the forum:

The City has experienced significant reductions in state aid and the Mayor and Council have set a goal of achieving a balanced budget without any state aid by the year 2015. This represents a decrease of just over $2 million dollars over the next four years or 20% of the General Fund budget, $500,000 in 2011…Given the size of the reduction, all services will be affected to some extent. The Mayor and Council want to know not only what services are important to you, but also what level of service is acceptable. Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain service levels? Would you be willing to pay additional fees and charges? Are you willing to accept reductions in hours of service at City facilities or longer response times?

True enough, but there are a few more questions you might consider:

  • The Council has also been planning major facilities projects: police/fire and library expansion, how much are you willing to pay towards completing those projects (where “pay” means either higher taxes or more limited services)?
  • What are the Council’s priorities and desired outcomes? Is the goal just to cut dollars or are there some goals the city is trying to accomplish?  Another way, how do the budget cuts serve the Comprehensive Plan or the Council goals?
  • Are these short term cuts which the Council believes will be restored sometime in the not too distant future, or is this “the new normal”? – if the latter, how does the Council proposed restructuring government to deliver the services we identify as most important?
  • Prior Councils have balanced budgets by deferring long term maintenance, facilities replacement and infrastructure projects.  Now the city has failing facilities, rough roads and no money.  What should the city do to address immediate needs but also plan for maintaining what it has in a sustainable way?
  • Ask the Council whether they prefer to set the preliminary tax level as high as possible (we must set the preliminary tax levy by September 15 by state law) and then try to whittle that amount down before setting the final tax levy in December?  Or would you prefer the Council set the preliminary “not to exceed” levy lower and be forced to find ways to reduce spending?  (I’m for setting it lower – I don’t think we should ask for more than we need and “need” becomes more flexible when the preliminary levy is set higher).

And, of course, bring your own comments and questions or just come and listen.

Here’s some information (much has been published in staff reports for Council meetings, etc., this is an incomplete list of major information):

Need more info?  Ask for it by posting a comment and I’ll try and provide it.

4 thoughts on “Public Forum on the Budget – August 23

  1. So Betsey, what did you hear at the Forum? I took notes and here’s what I heard.

    D. D. Davidson – No more cuts in services. No more increases in property taxes. Consider a sales tax.

    Ray Cox – No more tax increases. Support expansion of local businesses. Consider outsourcing some functions.

    Tristan Cox – Find and eliminate duplication. Reduce use of consultants. Use local resources of time and talents.

    David DeLong – Use actual numbers instead of budget numbers when comparing previous years to current; in one year there was $750,000 difference between budget and actual. When I was on the Council, one person handled Community Development, Economic Development, and Housing Development; now there are three different departments. When I was on the Council, the Finance Department and the City Clerk was one person; now there are two different departments. There’s no reason for this growth in municipal government.

    Jessica Paxton (for the NDDC) – The budget challenge is significant and not short-term. Commercial property owners can’t bear more tax increases. Let’s work together to find citizen-driven solutions.

    Don McGee – You’re all congratulating yourselves that the 2011 budget is balanced. The future looks much worse. Cut more spending now for long-term stability. Don’t cut core services, don’t cut maintenance budgets. Focus investment on projects that have a 3 to 5 year return, helping local businesses expand. (In response to a question,) Core services are what the citizens can see.

    Leota Goodney – Cut supervision. Get at what citizens consider to be core services. Consider cutting some level of services for certain specific areas.

    Fay Kaske – You can’t go backwards. If you cut too much, too quickly, you could do permanent damage. What if a liberal person gets elected governor?

    Angel Dobrow – Make up the difference between what we want and what we can afford with volunteers. Change the outside world’s perception of Northfield by providing services through volunteerism.

    Norman Butler – Increasing the property tax burden in the middle of a recession doesn’t make sense. Run some “what if” scenarios to see the impact of cutting staff in the General Government category. (In response to a question,) what do these people actually produce? No citizens are calling to save these $100,000 a year staff people.

    Paula Benson – Volunteers can build restrooms facilities in the parks…like the people who built a warming house for the hockey rink. Reduce cost expenditures with volunteers.

    Steve Engler – By the Finance Director’s estimates, the property tax portion of the City Budget is going to rise from $6 million to $9 million over the next four years. People can’t afford a 50% increase. City is the last to feel, and last to react to, a recession.

    Mary Rossing – Contact your state candidates and urge them to support LGA.

    So Betsey, how does what I heard compare with what you heard? Do you think the citizens’ comments will have any influence the Council’s decision-making on Tuesday night?

    Thanks much.

    • Thanks, Ross. I took notes, too. I heard many of the same things you did, but I have a few other things written down and some follow up comments/explanation.

      DD Davidson and sales tax. Currently, there is a moratorium on new local sales tax until the end of 2011. Once the moratorium expires, establishing a sales tax would take at least a referendum and (if it works as it has in the past) special legislation by the state legislature. If we’re interested in this option, we should start working now. Plus, the sales tax must be used for capital expenses for a specific project which would, at least on its face, be useful for Northfield, but we need more information and soon.

      Ray Cox specifically indicated increasing the tax base is needed and noted that baby boomers will present an increasing revenue problem as they age.

      Dave Delong also asked that we ask the Colleges for payment in lieu of taxes. While I support working with the Colleges on capital projects and long term planning issues, I would be suspicious of payment in lieu of taxes as looking too much like a de facto tax. The colleges considered a utility charge for streetlights based on acreage to be a de facto property tax; I’d think payment in lieu of taxes would be even more likely to be seen that way. Councilman Pokorney has suggested a per student payment which might be more palatable and, indeed, I read about a college town in New England which did work out such an agreement – but any steps we make in this direction will depend on strengthening our collaboration with the colleges rather than trying to send them a bill.

      Don McGee was commenting on deficit projections prepared by our finance director, Kathleen McBride; the League of MN Cities has also prepared some frightening projections of how cities will fare in the future if we continue in the same manner. Mr McGee also urged the City not to cut maintenance to facilities and infrastructure, but urged continued investment. I certainly agree with him on this point – Northfield does not have a good record of maintaining assets and planning for their replacement in a timely manner. He also alluded to the proposed business park as a project for some future date because its return on investment was too far in the future. Certainly, I’m with him on this, too, since I believe the up front costs for the business park will be substantial (millions) and the payback will take many years (and may never happen if the City must use incentives to lure business with reduced fees or tax breaks).

      Angel Dobrow and Pat Benson both spoke about harnessing the volunteer talent and skill of Northfield residents. On its face, it’s a great idea because Northfield is rich in human resources. We’ve got smart, committed volunteers working on our boards and commissions – including our newly empaneled financial workgroup – but these are advisors rather than “laborers.” As a risk averse corporate lawyer type, I do have some qualms about how the City can use volunteers wisely and effectively while also maintaining some control and limiting liability. Not saying it’s impossible, but I’d love to see a working model.

      Norman Butler opined that the city has not spoken about staff cuts “even in code” which drew laughs from the audience, but censure from the Mayor and Councilor Pownell. As a Council we struggle with this issue – I don’t think anyone disagrees that the people who fill the positions deserve respect and recognition for their work. This is especially true as we consider how we might restructure government to save money and increase efficiency. However, the positions (the set of tasks, responsibilities, place in the organizational structure, etc.) need to be discussed calmly and without defensiveness. The Council needs to know how much money is available to spend and what services we can/will provide. At that point, with a budget ceiling in place and the service goals outlined, the Council needs to hand off the task to Mr Madigan to determine what positions are needed to do the job and how they are to be filled. Not an easy or pleasant job, but one for which Mr Madigan needs both Council direction and support.

      Steve Engler also called for a 3-5 year rolling budget process which deals with the total amount that “comes out of the community” not just property tax revenue. I’m with him on this, I’m one of those budgeting for outcomes people who thinks we need to know the total amount people are willing to pay for government (property taxes, fees, etc.), then elected leaders have to prioritize and “buy” as much as we can afford under that limit. Mr Engler, like Mr McGee also commented that life cycle costs must be built in to our budgeting.

      That’s what I heard – if the speakers referred to above happen to be reading, I hope they’ll elaborate on what we tried to summarize.

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