As winter winds down, most turn their attention to the change of seasons from the cold of winter to the warmth of spring. For those of us in local government, the longer days and change in weather signal a different type of season: budget season. For the past few posts, I have been discussing the organizational response to the Council’s Strategic Plan, highlighting our values, organizing framework, and strategies. Before concluding that discussion with a glimpse of the actions we undertake, I want to pause and use this post to talk about this year’s budget process.
We are about half way through budget development, a process that began with the Council’s Budget Planning Retreat back in the late fall. Following this retreat, I provided Division Managers and Department Directors with instruction for areas where our focus is needed, and with our priorities in responding to the Council’s strategic direction. Not surprisingly, this year much of the focus remains on recovering from COVID impacts on tax revenues and the associated uncertainty. Additionally, this year we are focused on delivering a budget that places addressing inequities at the forefront. Finally, there remains the need to address public safety compensation, and progress on key capital projects and community initiatives. I will briefly address each of these.
Along with the rest of the community, we continue our recovery from COVID-related economic impacts. While the housing market remains stronger than ever along with sales tax, revenues associated with hospitality and restaurants is considerably below levels of recent past years. Overall, current projections have us with about $3 million more in revenue this year than last, though as long as the virus remains in our community, along with the associated restrictions, a great deal of uncertainty remains. But at least the situation is more hopeful than that of last year at this time, when we scrambled to reduce our year-over-year expenditures by nearly $9 million.
It’s certainly no secret that, while many in our community are doing well and are seeing their opportunity and wealth increase, there are many who continue to struggle and, in certain areas of our City, have actually seen their economic situation worsen. Much of this disparity is related to policy decisions at the federal, state, and local level that have left certain individuals, households, and neighborhoods struggling with inequities that limit their access to opportunities. Consistent with the recently adopted Comprehensive Plan and its call for a greater focus on equity, we have started a two-year process to adapt our current Budgeting for Outcomes approach to yield a budget that delivers on equitable and empowering outcomes. This effort will help reduce disparities that exist in our community, amplify the assets that exist in struggling neighborhoods and, in turn, make the entire community stronger and more resilient.
Taking Care of Our Workforce
With any budget—household, business, or community— wants and needs often exceed resources. Our budget is no different and is the very reason why a strategic approach is so important. Some of our greatest needs exist around ensuring that we can maintain delivery of basic services, especially those oriented around community safety, for example law enforcement, fire suppression, and emergency services. In recent years, it has become more difficult to attract and retain the talent needed in these areas, placing our community at increasing risk. A variety of reasons for these issues exist, but compensation is a key factor. Simply put, we need to pay more for these key positions if we have any hope of attracting and retaining the best.
Taking Care of Our Investments
Similarly, we struggle to keep 100-year-old bridges safe, decades-old fire stations and community centers need replacement, and such basics as trash trucks, computers, sidewalks, traffic signals, and stormwater drainage all need greater attention. We anticipate spending at least $112 million over the next five years on these capital items, funded through a combination of cash and debt.
Every month through May, we are providing a budget briefing to the City Council on the first Monday of each month. Additionally, we have been hosting a series of virtual town halls on the budget development. All of the materials associated with these are available on our website.
At this point in the process, much remains unresolved and uncertain about this year’s budget proposal. But it is certain that I will present a budget that responds to the Council’s priorities and is balanced, and that presentation will occur before the end of the fiscal year in June. I encourage you to follow the budget development through the briefings noted above, join in the public hearing once I have submitted the proposed budget to Council, and ask any questions you might have about the process or the budget itself.
-- Bob Cowell