The budget process is one of the most difficult tasks City Council has to shoulder and city staff has to endure. In times of plenty, it may be possible to approve a good chunk of every department’s requests and raise employee compensation equitably across the board without gouging taxpayers and the renters who shoulder landlord tax pass-throughs.
There is nothing more fundamental in balanced budgeting than ensuring revenues match expenditures. It is critical to cultivate and grow potential revenue sources continuously in anticipation of increasing expenses beyond local control.
In leaner times, the budgeting process can easily pit departments and employee groups against each other as they vie for limited funds. Like any team, internal competition and unspoken resentments over finances linger and are detrimental long after the annual budget is published. Lean times can also pit city employees against taxpayers. If one group receives, another frequently must forfeit.
All parties — employees, unions and associations, council members and citizens — can benefit from being aware of the financial environment within which the next year’s budget must be constructed. It is only human to adopt a somewhat “me first” attitude when it comes to money.
In reality, every expense included in the final annual city budget, is there, at least in part, because other needs/wishes have been excluded. City administration needs to spare no effort in making budget asks as well as their costs and justifications clear and digestible in order to help all community members, including city employees, understand the complicated financial choreography involved — especially in a tight-income/high-expense year.
For some council members, deciding which projects and which departmental needs and wishes are funded in a lean year is quite like trying to decide whether to let all your children go hungry or determine which ones go to sleep with full bellies while the others lie hungry.
By law, municipal budgets must be balanced. Every expenditure must be offset or “balanced” by income. Idaho cities are not allowed to function “in the red” and maneuver among payments and expenditures to run at a deficit.
Pocatellans deserve in-depth budget deliberations because every dollar our city government spends from the general fund comes from the pockets of hard-working citizens just trying to get ahead and provide a decent living for themselves and their loved ones. Renters, businesses and homeowners all contribute to the city property taxes collected through the county each year. We are not the only taxing entity. Bannock County and School District 25 also account for sizable portions of property tax bills.
Rising property taxes continue to be very concerning for many local homeowners. I just spoke to a friend whose house valuation has risen about 30 percent since last year. That probably indicates a sizable property tax hike despite the increase to the homeowners’ exemption recently passed by the Idaho Legislature. The more the city, school district and county budget for expenses, the harder it is to keep the levy rate low. The higher the levy rate, the more you pay in taxes.
We all know almost everything keeps getting more expensive. That creates a legitimate need for our city to increase its spending to buy essentials such as asphalt, concrete, gravel, fuel, etc. We need to enact as many cost saving efficiencies as possible and live within our means relative to staffing. However, that alone cannot create a sustainable budget over time since we have little control over continually rising external costs. The solution ultimately must include increasing income to match escalating expenses.
We need to finally get serious about business development — which means bringing stable companies with decent wage and benefit packages to Pocatello. Our city administration seems to have largely ignored this need. Kicking expensive projects down the road for a decade and failing to produce significant business/job development gains is straining our resources.
The fewer businesses we have sharing the property tax burden, the more residential homeowners must make up the difference. Economic development is not fast or easy. It takes time and often years of groundwork.
We should have been in high gear a decade ago. Our economic development web page tab should have been clear, crisp and devoid of references to Hoku — a failed venture, from 2002. Thanks to pressure from council, the mayor has recently tasked staff with some initial website improvements relative to economic development. However, this “from left field” approach is unfair to staff and blindsides them with unexpected workload.
Regardless of how painful lean budgets can be, they can also help city councils, mayors, bargaining units and employees re-focus on essential priorities and reign in a city that has not been skillfully managed from the top.
We must strive for commercial development that pays living wages to our people, capitalizes on our gorgeous surroundings, protects the precious drinking water flowing through the aquifer beneath our feet, spurs thoughtful residential growth and provides a safe/satisfying quality of life for our citizens.
Christine Stevens is a member of the Pocatello City Council.