Budget reveals priorities

Published 10:31 am Saturday, May 9, 2009

Publisher’s note: In the original version of this column published here and in the Sunday print edition, I reported inaccurately on city employees’ health insurance premiums. The city pays 80 percent of employee premiums, 63 percent of spousal premiums and 58 percent of family premiums. While still a very generous benefit, it is not as generous as I originally reported. For that, I apologize to readers who were misled and to all city employees who participate in the health-insurance plan.

In a budget north of $20 million, the City of Franklin can’t find $20,000 to fully fund Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater and the Boys and Girls Club — two organizations that could have an enormous impact on this community’s long-range vitality.

Mayor Jim Councill thinks that’s a crying shame.

So do I.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I sit on the Boys and Girls Club board with Councill. He also was the founding force behind Smart Beginnings, an early-childhood-education initiative, and I have had very limited involvement with that organization’s steering committee.)

My honest disagreement with the mayor — a man whom I believe to be sincerely passionate about children and fully tapping their potential as the workforce of tomorrow — is on the question of how to pay for the causes we both hold dear.

Councill would simply bill the city’s property owners. In a budget work session Wednesday night, he noted that a 3-cent increase in the property tax rate would cost the owner of a $200,000 home an additional $60 a year.

The insinuation, I suppose, is that $60 isn’t much. Middle-class occupants of those $200,000 homes who are teetering on foreclosure might beg to differ. But even if one takes the point that $60 is negligible in the average household’s budget, my bigger problem with the mayor’s argument is its lack of context.

To appreciate the plight of the beleaguered homeowner in Franklin requires more than a one-year snapshot.

Here’s the bigger picture. Since 2004, between increases in the tax rate and assessed values, the average homeowner or business owner has seen his property tax bill rise a whopping 38 percent. Five years ago, the city collected $5.7 million in taxes from property owners. Next year, it proposes to collect $7.8 million. Other local taxes — automobiles, business equipment, etc. — have risen 30 percent, to $5.9 million, over the same period.

This simple analysis does not even consider water, sewer, electricity and garbage bills. (The latter are about to go through the roof in order to prop up the floundering Southeastern Public Service Authority.)

The overriding message of the 2008 municipal elections — in which one City Council incumbent was swept from office and the mayor struggled to defeat two underfunded challengers — was that enough is enough. City government was growing faster than its citizenry could afford.

A council majority wisely heeded that sentiment, and new City Manager June Fleming wisely embraced it in preparing a proposed fiscal 2010 budget with no tax increases.

The notion that property owners should do more to fund city government simply won’t fly.

Rather, the City Council must take existing revenue and reprioritize. This will require a degree of political courage that the current council — and certainly not its predecessors — has failed to muster.

Saying no to tax increases is easy and popular. Reprioritizing takes guts.

Putting children and public safety first means that some other groups and causes will suffer. Included in that number is city employees, who have become something of a protected class during a time when city government can’t afford sacred cows.

Any serious discussion of spending priorities and fiscal reform must include a look at employee salaries and benefits.

Much has been made of the city’s eliminating unfilled positions from the budget last year, and I won’t discount the importance of that action. The city budget, under prior administrations, had become a shell game of budgeting jobs that officials had no intention of filling in order to create a slush fund for pet projects.

This council and Fleming have made honest, transparent budgeting a priority and should be applauded for it.

Remarkably, though, during a recession that has required massive layoffs in state government and the private sector, not a single City of Franklin employee has been laid off. Neither would anyone lose his job under the proposed fiscal 2010 budget.

City government’s idea of sacrifice is to forego a pay increase and cancel the annual employee picnic. Meantime, the city’s public schools are cutting 23 jobs, including seven classroom teachers. Is anyone besides me disturbed by this picture?

This is no knock against Fleming, who drafted a 2010 budget that reflects the City Council’s collective sentiment. That is the job of an administrator who serves at the will and pleasure of the council.

The tough decisions on fiscal reform and prioritization must come from the council itself. Will this be a city that puts children and public safety first? Or will it be one that coddles its bureaucrats at the expense of citizens present and future?