Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Budget Kabuki

A city budget is a lot like a performance of kabuki.

Kabuki is a highly stylized Japanese dance/drama. It's long. (It takes a whole day.) The actors speak in monotonous voices. Their language is difficult even for a Japanese audience to understand.

A lot like the city budget process. Long, monotonous; difficult to understand.

Let's begin with an example of budget kabuki. The Mayor's car. When a car for incoming Mayor Mills was proposed by then Mayor Margerum there were loud howls of outrage from the Republican side. How dare those free spending Democrats burden the suffering West Lafayette tax payer with the cost of a "free" car for the Mayor. Don't they know this will cost several thousand more dollars a year? Mayor Margerum gave in. No city car for the Mayor. No city car for a Democratic mayor.

As Councilor Hoggatt's now unremembered questions about the Mayor's car at a recent city council meeting shows, Democrats are just not as good at budget kabuki. Republican concerns about the expense have vanished. Along with about $20,000 city dollars over a mayor's four year term.


The 2011 West Lafayette City Budget is part political theater.
The 2011 budget is lean, mean, and practical. The Rainy Day Fund is in better shape than under those darn Democrats. Public safety is assured. The General Fund is in balance. The moral of the story is that Republicans are better managers than Democrats.

Kabuki uses make-up. Elaborate make-up. Men play women. The human face with all its wrinkles is covered, and a public face consistent with the story is created.

What is painted over here is the use of the Waste Water Utility surplus as the new rainy day fund. There is nothing illegal or immoral about that. If the Waste Water Utility wants to contribute $5,344 to a cool Celery Bog parking lot, so be it. But it is now our rainy day fund. Beginning in 2009 when the Sanitation Department budget was moved to the Waste Water Utility budget, the then $170,000 annual operating deficit of the Sanitation department (EPICS Report 2009) left the general fund budget and moved with it. Portions of the Engineering Department ($42,000), the Development Department ($97,000), the Mayor's salary ($24,000) and the Clerk-Treasurer's office ($31,000) went along too. The net (and recurring) expense to the WWTU (Waste Water Treatment Utility) was $600,326 in 2009.

This unnerves the previous Democratic leadership, which at some political expense and in the face of Republican opposition, had raised the waste water rates in order to have funds on hand for capital projects. Now the city will borrow (Res. #08-10) for major sewer projects. The interest will be low. Not as low as 0%.

How can we do that? As we learned during the recent financial crisis, money is fungible. The word is from the Latin meaning "to perform". Money performs, is an actor. Money is fungible or interchangeable. "Stuff" is not fungible. Diamonds are not fungible. (Each is cut differently.)

So WWTU "brown" expenses are paid with the "brown" dollars collected from our waste water bills. The "red" bills of the Mayor's office can be paid for with "red" general fund dollars or "brown" waste water dollars. "Black" trash costs can be paid with either "black" dollars (the $9.00 we pay each month), "red" dollars, or now "brown" dollars.
Because all dollars are fungible. All dollars are "green".

Fire hydrant costs are paid with "red" dollars. Without Councilor Thomas's change of heart, they would soon have been be paid with "plaid" dollars, as that "tax" would have been outsourced to a private company for collection.


Another wrinkle is the use of the Redevelopment Commission to make budget. "TIF" (tax increment financing dollars) dollars are to be used for economic development in particular areas.
Now the commission buys us fire trucks, fitness trails, and dump trucks. Without major capital projects to support, that seems like a good idea. The budget is balanced - but with annual contributions of "paisley" dollars from the Redevelopment Commission.


Salaries are paid from the Parks/Pool Capital Improvement Fund. Again, Councilor Hoggatt spoke to that issue last month. It's "blue" dollars will pay what had been "red" bills. Maybe Jon Hoggatt should have yelled.


I don't like kabuki.
I don't think this budget is in great shape. It's in the red. It will get redder.

But I would STILL have voted for this budget IF:

If we were on cable. (Shelter pets can get on Comcast, not us. I'm sure that says something. I am not sure what . . . ) I would have liked a larger audience for our financial performance. None of this will find its way into the J&C or on to TV-18. It just takes too long to explain. It is difficult to understand. All anyone would know if I voted "yes" is that Mayor Dennis, is a nice guy, he's one of us, and this budget is just "fate". No, its not. Everybody thinks so. No, I don't.

I would still have voted for this budget if the reporters from the Exponent, TV-18, and the Journal-Courier would still be here in 2013. I would have voted "yes" if there were somebody around who might remember, "I told you so." "I voted for it then, but I told you this would happen after the next election." Then I would have voted for it.

I would have voted yes if metered trash had gone into effect. We need the money. We can't keep running deficits in an important city enterprise. I would have voted yes if the storm water fees were in place. Lafayette has done it already; why do you think that is? We cannot put these things off.

I would have voted yes if any Republican had stood up and said, as IACT (Indiana Association of Cities and Towns) executive director Matthew Greller has, that "the citizens of municipalities will pay the price for tax caps portrayed as the obvious answer." No Republican here would stand up and say publically, as they do privately, that the state Republicans are killing us. People have just plain gotten used to things like fire hydrants. They don't want to run to the corner with a roll of quarters to feed the meter when their garage is on fire.

I know, I know; the budget is lean, mean, practical. It is. And it will get us through the next election cycle.

But it is not the best we can do for the city today. It is quit certainly not the best we can do for the future of our city.

I vote no.

No comments: