Business as usual at City Hall

Published 12:21 pm Saturday, October 11, 2008

I fully expect the Franklin City Council to raise my property taxes later this month — and to tell me that it’s my patriotic duty to accept it.

Council members stopped just short of laying a Biden-esque guilt trip on property owners at a public forum Monday night. Those who showed up to protest a proposed 10 percent tax increase for fiscal 2009 were told (a) what a hard job it is to be a city councilman and to make tough decisions; (b) that it’s too simplistic for citizens to suggest spending cuts without offering specifics; and, shamefully, (c) that a tax hike may be necessary to keep the citizenry safe and schools operational.

I couldn’t help but contrast city government’s conduct during a time of fiscal crisis with that of state government.

On Thursday, Gov. Tim Kaine acted forcefully in the face of worsening state and national economies.

While the Franklin City Council is poised to spend more, Kaine announced $2.5 billion in state spending cuts over the next two years, including 600 layoffs of state employees.

“Businesses are hurting, and they’re making less money. Citizens are hurting, and they’re making less money. When they make less money, they pay less taxes,” Kaine said. “And they have to make very difficult decisions around a kitchen table, or around an office, about what to cut. Government has to do the same thing.”

Franklin needs the same kind of leadership — and advocacy for taxpayers — at City Hall.

Rather than whining about the tough job they have, City Council members need to get busy finding about $400,000 to cut from a $52 million city budget and its $21.7 million general fund.

The public schools get just $15 million, or less than 30 percent, of that $52 million. Public safety accounts for about $5 million, or less than 10 percent. Remember those numbers the next time a City Council member tries to tell you it’s a choice between high taxes and unsafe streets or between high taxes and inferior schools.

The City Council can — and should — take both education and public safety off the budget chopping block.

That leaves more than $35 million — $16 million in the general fund alone — from which to find $400,000 in savings.

Trimming less than 2 percent of the general fund would allow the city to set a revenue-neutral tax rate and give beleagured property owners a break from the soaring taxes of the past decade. Sure, it would require a few hard decisions, but business owners and families make those hard decisions every day. So can city government.

City fathers could learn much from Richmond.

Among the commonwealth’s cost-cutting strategies:

■ Every state agency was ordered to prepare plans to reduce their spending by 5 percent, 10 percent and 15 percent. From those plans, Kaine identified and implemented $323 million in savings. Essential services like K-12 education were protected. No non-essential service was sacred.

■ A planned 2 percent raise for state employees is on hold.

■ Some 570 state employees will lose their jobs.

It’s tragic that a fifth of those affected employees are with the Southampton Correctional Center, which will close by January under Kaine’s plan. Closure of the aging prison was inevitable; the current fiscal crisis sealed its fate.

It should give great urgency to diversification of the local economy, which relies too much on public-sector jobs. A strong private-sector employment base begins with protecting jobs already here. High property taxes hurt that cause. Low taxes help preserve existing jobs and attract new ones.

Franklin Southampton Economic Development President John Smolak told the City Council as much last month.

Likewise, the council has gotten plenty of good advice on how to cut spending. In June, before the current budget was adopted, one of this community’s most thoughtful and respected citizens, Everett Williams, urged council members to delay an across-the-board pay raise for city employees until the second half of the fiscal year. The council ignored him. Williams suggested exempting high-salaried city employees from an across-the-board pay raise. The council ignored him.

Williams was back at the podium Monday night with more of the specific suggestions council members claim they don’t get from citizens. He told the council to consider eliminating the job of city finance director, which was recently vacated by Andy Rose, and share bookkeeping personnel with the school division and housing authority.

Yes, good advice is plentiful for City Council members. They just don’t listen.