By Chris Teale (File photo)
City councilors quickly reached consensus at a meeting last month and unanimously agreed to allow City Manager Mark Jinks to raise taxes if necessary to balance his fiscal 2017 budget proposal, due out next month.
Councilors held their annual budget retreat on November 21 after feedback from residents through several community meetings, and approved its overall procedure and the guidance November 24. Although the timeline for Jinks to propose his budget — and for council to adopt it — was quickly endorsed, officials debated a number of options for new funds if Jinks proposes a tax rate increase.
City Councilor Justin Wilson proposed that any additional revenue generated from an increase in the tax rate be directed towards the capital budget so the city can better address its infrastructure needs.
“We just went through [an election] campaign where every single person talked about the need to invest in our infrastructure, and I think we do,” he said. “We have capital infrastructure in this city that’s badly underinvested. We deferred capital for a long time, and we’re trying to play a game of catch-up and I think we’re doing an alright job of that but we have more to go.”
But Wilson’s amendment did not garner support and was not voted on. City Councilor Tim Lovain acknowledged the need for further infrastructure investment and argued that during the budget process, members of the public will advocate about those investments.
City Councilor Paul Smedberg said city council was not ignoring its commitment to capital projects, and would continue to invest without neglecting operating budget needs. To do that, Jinks will need flexibility in formulating his budget, Smedberg said.
“Maybe we haven’t gone as far as we’d all have liked, but reality is we’ve taken some pretty big steps the last two years and so I think we’re getting our arms around it,” he said. “I trust Mark and his team to come forward with a proposal that’s going to continue on that path.”
Smedberg and several others said directing new tax revenues only into the capital budget would mean dramatic cuts on the operating side. But Wilson criticized the lack of investment in capital needs, which include the city’s sewer system, schools and broadband Internet capabilities.
“If there is a desire to keep our debt low, if there is a desire to not allow the costs of these things to skyrocket, then we have to be willing to bite the bullet and make these investments,” he said. “I have not seen, during the annual budget process, the willingness to do that from this council or last year, previous councils.”
Last year, city council gave Jinks the opportunity to raise taxes ahead of the fiscal 2016 budget deliberations, but the then-acting city manager returned a flat proposal for council’s approval. Those negotiations also saw the use of a new method in the add/delete process for amending the budget proposal, including the use of a budget proposal form required to add or delete anything from the budget. Each proposal required the support of two cosponsors for a total of three city councilors in favor of a change, but the new guidance looked to increase that to three cosponsors, something that councilors resisted.
“It seems to me like it almost has to be settled before it can be proposed,” said Lovain, with Pepper noting her agreement on reducing the number of required cosponsors. Smedberg, who along with City Councilor John Chapman spearheaded the new form in late 2014, said it was only to prevent late additions to the budget process.
“What it was trying to prevent, is when we didn’t have any kind of process and people at the last minute were coming in with $50,000 requests and there was no budget memo, no work session discussion, nothing,” Smedberg said. “It was all these last-minute requests and this is an attempt to get that.”
Council voted to maintain the status quo of requiring a total of three city councilors to endorse a budget amendment, while an amendment introduced by Lovain that funding for ACPS can consider inflation in addition to enrollment growth passed, again to give Jinks flexibility in his negotiations with Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley.
After its unanimous passage, Euille praised his colleagues for their work in what is his last budget as mayor.
“This new council as well as the manager and us as citizens and taxpayers have a big challenge ahead of us in terms of how do we do all the things that need to be done both on the operating and CIP side and to do it in a way that is balanced but also doesn’t overburden taxpayers,” he said. “We’ll work at it together, and I look forward to coming to the meetings and offering some suggestions.”