The good news is that for many local governments, property values are up and so is the economy, especially in urban areas. However that does not mean that the budget approval difficulties of 2009-2012 have passed or been resolved. In fact the arguments may continue despite improvements in financial position. Why? There are a number of policies that were implemented in the recession years that were especially difficult for utilities:
- Borrowed or transferred water and sewer monies to avoid raising taxes against falling property values (note that raising taxes on falling values would have yielded a zero sum game, but raising taxes commensurate might have “un”elected a few people
- Failing to have long-term financial plan and even fewer have multiyear budgets. Included are automatic rate adjustments that some are questioning or deferring now, despite having been approved several years ago
- Bad investments – public or private. In either case, if the revenues are not realized, the local entity gains no benefit. This can include public private infrastructure investments, privatization or investing cash. Scenarios need to be created to figure out what happens when things don’t go as planned.
- Failing to save for a rainy day before the crash. Our grandparents knew we need to save for a rainy day. We talk about the lowered level of savings among Americans and the potential issues that could arise if economic difficulties occur. So exactly why do our elected leaders think it is a great idea not to collect monies in good times for a rainy day? Other than politics that is?
We have identified four errors in public policy at the local level. The questions for the 2015 budget are:
- Can we repay those funds we “borrowed” from during the down years?
- Can we keep the total revenues increasing (may not mean a tax increase, but certainly not a rollback)?
- Can we develop realistic scenarios for public investments. Nothing worse than stranded infrastructure like that $6milion parking garage that grossed under $100 in the last 6 months because no one uses it because there is not business need for it.
- Can we develop reserve policies that allow local governments and especially utilities to create and maintain repair and replacement funds, reserves, and “savings” for the next rainy day. It’s coming. At some point.
- Can we develop a 5 year plan of where the community vision is?
I think this would be a start for a lot of us.