Tax and spend — without the taxes

You could hear the frustration in Councilman Jerry Kline’s voice: “You’ve got a federal government who’s cutting, a state government that’s cutting. Why aren’t we doing this?”

Instead, the City of Marion was looking at a budget calling for a tax increase of roughly $22 on a typical home. The question was not so much whether taxes should increase, but whether taxpayers would see a tangible benefit if they did. City crews’ getting a new backhoe, a new bucket truck, or a new dump truck instead a used one didn’t seem enough.

It was the same line of thinking that prompted County Commissioner Randy Dallke to lament earlier in the day about the county’s new jail: “We have a $3 million building improvement. With that, we expect some good streets and parking for the public.”

The problem is not that government spends too much. Even the quickest glance at county roads and city streets is enough to convince anyone that government is spending nowhere near enough. The problem is what government spends our money on, and that problem is aggravated by the annual shell game known as budget-setting.

Whether they are city administrators or county department heads, this is the time of year when beleaguered bureaucrats solemnly parade before elected officials, list everything they want, get lectured about how raising taxes would be as popular as colonoscopies, then grudgingly make cuts so elected officials can look like heroes for not raising taxes.

All truly meaningful projects end up being delayed as too expensive — not because they really are, but because enough support can be found for them to justify borrowing instead of eating away at the mass of bureaucratic inefficiency that is allowed to get a pass if taxes don’t rise.

As a result, we’re drowning in debt. Last year, Marion had debt of more than $4.5 million against assessed valuation of $9.8 million. City debt — excluding county or school debt owed against the same property — consumed 46 percent of the entire assessed value of the community. Hillsboro’s debt load is even larger. This year, its $9.7 million debt against $16.2 million in valuation means the city has borrowed 59 percent of its worth.

The odd thing is, many elected officials actually seem to get this. When Councilman Todd Heitschmidt and Mayor Mary Olson were in total agreement Monday about the need to focus on budgeting for steady improvement of infrastructure, it was as if Jayhawks and Wildcats suddenly broke into a joint chorus of “Kumbaya.”

The challenge is whether they will actually do anything about it.

Last week, City Administrator Doug Kjellin floated a trial balloon about increasing electric rates. This week, it was a trial balloon about increasing property taxes. Both ended up being shot down, of course, just as most of the requests county commissioners have been taking in recent budget work sessions will end up on the commission’s cutting room floor. Bureaucrats always get to play the heavies to elected officials’ heroes this time of year.

Kline scored Monday, for example, when he caught Kjellin budgeting for all-new equipment even though the city was likely to buy used. “You’re just padding the budget so you make sure you have enough money,” he exorted.

The problem is, Kjellin also was the one who had reminded council members a few minutes earlier of a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise included in the budget for all city workers. Are city workers performing 2 percent more work, with 2 percent better service? Or are they, in a community where government is the single largest industry, merely a powerful voting block who believe annual raises are a guaranteed entitlement?

Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction. Hours before city officials spoke seemingly endlessly about the relative advantages and disadvantages of buying a used vs. new heavy equipment, all in hope of saving $23,748 to avoid increasing taxes, the county was playing politics with whether it would pay $32,000 or $44,000 to help repair Fourth Street. At stake in the bickering was half the total amount the city was trying to save. Three days earlier, the county was demonstrating an aerial photography system. While somewhat intriguing, it will end up costing more than 10 times the amount commissioners bandied about. The money is there. It’s just how it’s being spent.

Instead of always casting options in terms of buying shiny new backhoes or beat-up used ones, have governments even looked into whether each of them needs multiple backhoes? Could one government share with another to help reduce costs so that instead of debating new vs. used we actually debate cost vs. benefit?

The problem, dear taxpayer, is not in our politicians. It is in ourselves. This budget season, don’t look just at whether elected officials avoided increasing taxes. Look at whether they actually provided needed services or let our tax money be frittered away by being every traveling salesperson’s favorite mark.

— ERIC MEYEr

 

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