What he meant to say

Published 11:56 am Tuesday, May 19, 2009

First, an apology.

In this space last week, I reported that Franklin taxpayers fully fund city employees’ health insurance premiums and 80 percent of their families’ premiums. That was wrong. Taxpayers pay 80 percent of employee premiums, 63 percent of spouses’ premiums and 58 percent of full-family coverage.

Though still a very generous benefit compared with most private employers’ plans, the city’s plan is not as generous as I reported.

I apologize to readers whom I misled. I also have apologized to city employees directly in a letter graciously distributed by Franklin City Manager June Fleming.

Second, a clarification. I am grateful for municipal employees and the services they provide that contribute to the terrific quality of life I enjoy as a citizen of this community. In writing about the need for prioritization within a tight city budget, I created the impression with some city workers — several of whom I heard from this week — that I don’t value their service. That was unintentional.

My point — poorly made — was that payroll and benefits have to be “on the table” when making sure that a limited pool of tax dollars accomplishes the most good for citizens.

That means some hard decisions for those who control the purse strings — in this case the Franklin City Council.

Actually, it should be noted that — in government, unlike the private sector — there’s an easy way out, though it can be fraught with political consequences. You can simply tax your citizenry to whatever degree necessary to keep every vested group happy. That was the approach for many years in Franklin, and city spending mushroomed.

This City Council, to its credit, heeded the wishes of a frustrated electorate last year and agreed that city government had grown too large and that property owners were paying too high a price, especially in a tough economy that has squeezed every household budget.

The fiscal 2010 budget proposed by the council and up for comment at a public hearing later this month would continue to force city government to live within its current means. Property taxes would not rise. Nor would spending, except for a mandatory increase in garbage tipping fees paid to the Southeastern Public Service Authority.

As a business owner and homeowner, I am grateful for the council’s commitment to fiscal discipline.

The missed opportunity in this budget is to take the same pool of money and to reallocate it to address the community’s most urgent needs.

Regrettably, that nearly always requires laying someone off in one area so that more resources can be devoted to another.

On our newspaper’s Web site, a reader, responding to last week’s column, suggested it was gutless of me to call for layoffs of city employees without identifying the areas I’d cut. Fair enough.

In a recessionary economy with little happening in the way of construction, I’d redirect much of the money being spent on planning, zoning and code enforcement to pressing needs.

I’d consolidate the administrative functions and top leadership of Franklin Power & Light and the Department of Public Works.

I’d apply a critical eye to every clerical and administrative process at City Hall and seek total efficiency by requiring specialists, no matter how competent in their areas of expertise, to become multitaskers.

My priorities for the money saved:

The police officer who will respond if an intruder enters my home and attempts to harm my wife. Rising violent-crime rates suggest that the possibility is not so far-fetched. If it happens, I want that officer to be well compensated, well equipped and well trained. And I want him to have plenty of backup should the need arise.

The firefighter and emergency medical technician who will respond to my business if it’s burning and people are trapped inside.

The classroom teacher whose instruction and guidance will produce a new generation of productive citizens rather than a new generation of criminals and underachievers.

Any other service provider — inside or outside city government — whose efforts increase a young Franklin child’s chances of succeeding in life and becoming a contributing member of this community and its economy.

There are many other valid uses of city money, and there are many hard-working, competent city employees engaged in providing other services of value. It’s not personal when I say that I’d sacrifice any of them — or their benefits — in varying degrees to ensure the safety of today’s citizenry and the preparation of tomorrow’s workforce.

This city budget, while laudable in many respects, including its impressive show of overall fiscal restraint, could better address those priorities. That’s what I meant to say last week.