Tag Archives: Local revenues

Your grandma always told you to save money for a rainy day.  She wasn’t really talking about rainy days, but days when you had less or no income.  The press talks about the huge percentage of Americans that have little or no savings, and how compared to other countries, we are at a disadvantage during economic times.  A huge problem is that the same argument can be translated to governments, which must provide services, and often more services during economic downturns.  But if they have no savings, how are they to accomplish this?  They do not want to raise taxes and fees in down situations, so won’t the loss of services just make things worse?

A recent PEW reports suggests that states “had about half the reserves necessary to address budget gaps during the first year of the Great Recession.  The 50 states had about $60 billion set aside in the summer of 2008, but in fiscal 2009, budget gaps across the country totaled $117 billion, about twice what states had in reserve. The budget gaps continued to grow in 2010 and many states struggled with shortfalls for years afterward.  Bad news, but the news really does not improve.  They report that 37 states have legal caps that prevent them from saving enough to weather recessions or even enough to substantially offset revenue losses, and most of those are based on some percentage of the prior year’s revenues.  Why?  Short-term views?  Most governments figure on keeping enough cash on hand to pay bills during tax seasons. That accounts for 60-90 days of funds.  Far too little for dealing with economic impacts.  Far too few state governments recognize the importance of saving, figuring that cutting taxes during time of plenty and giving back to taxpayers is a better use of funds.  Then it is someone else’s issue when the next economic hiccup occurs – and it will.  Unless you raise your cap now as Minnesota and Virginia have recently done.

But the issue is not just a state issue.  It is a local and a utility issue as well.  Local governments are closer to the ground, have less leeway in their budgets and often have far too little funding as a result of resistance to raising property taxes, user fees and over-dependence on state shared sales tax, which often drops precipitously during a recession.  Same goes for sin and gas tax dependence.  When people slow smoking, or as oil prices drop, so do revenues.  Ask Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas, North Dakota and others that are oil rich states about their budget this past year.  The legislatures were begging Grover Norquist to let them out of their no tax increase pledges.  He said no of course, because he doesn’t want government to function properly.  So those legislators were stuck in the either “do the right thing” or “get whacked by Grover in the next election” conundrum.  You know what they did because they want to get re-elected  That doesn’t help the citizens of those states.  Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook on Alaska’s general obligation and appropriation-backed debt from stable to negative. That will cost them in the future. St. Louis, Moody’s downgraded the city’s credit rating one step to A1, citing “the city’s weak socioeconomic profile; reliance on earnings taxes which are due for voter reauthorization in 2016.”  Diversity in industry and taxes is beneficial.  Too often this gets lost in the desire to do more with less, but doing more means you need more funding!  And you need to collect those savings as grandma counselled!


A recent article in the South Florida SunSentinel newspaper raised an interesting question.  What they did was line up all the cities in the county and identify the total fees paid to the City by residents.  They took the tax rates, plus water, sewer, storm water, fire, garbage and any other fees.  The article raised an interesting question.  For example, Hollywood, West Park and Lauderdale Lakes had the highest cost per household – in excess of $3500/year.  The other end of the spectrum was Hillsboro Beach, Sea Ranch Lakes and Southwest Ranches, each under $2000/household.  Of note is that Southwest Ranches provides no water or sewer service (all wells and septic tanks on large lots), so a direct comparison is not really appropriate.  Property taxes were low, but fire fees were really high.  Sea Ranch Lakes is a tiny community with no sewer, so again, not really a good comparison.  Hillsboro Beach is among the wealthiest communities, but also tiny. 

 Most communities had total fees between $2100 and 3200/resident.  Why the difference? First, the value of property varies widely.  West Park and Lauderdale lakes have among the lowest values per household, so their taxes must be higher to provide the same level of service.  Hollywood, and Dania Beach (#4 on the list) had higher water, sewer and storm water costs.  While both have recent, ongoing infrastructure programs, both have large transfers from the water and sewer fund to the general fund, and in both cases the water and sewer customer base does not match the property tax base.  In Dania Beach’s case, the service area is half the City, so those residents are supporting the property tax funded services at a higher rate than their neighbors.  Hollywood struggled with major budget issues to used water and sewer funds to balance the budget.

The problem that this article did not address, but should have was that where water, sewer and storm water costs were high, what was driving this? Was in infrastructure investments that others simply have yet to make?  That’s ok and the fact that these utilities invested now may be more timing.  If the result is due to transfers to the general fund, that is an entirely different, and somewhat disconcerting problem.  First since the service areas are not the same. There is a fairness issue.  Some residents pay more for the same services.  It means the water and sewer system is not really an enterprise, with rates based on service costs.  Instead it is being used as a tax source.

%d bloggers like this: