The Newton City Commission is considering a 5-mill increase for the 2017 budget, and the following is offered as a bit of context and explanation for why there is such a need.
The State of Kansas has received a lot of criticism for using short-term gimmicks to fix their budget shortfalls, including diverting transportation and other dedicated funds, delaying payments to KPERS and school districts, and internal and external borrowing to cover operations.
Local governments are not completely exempt from criticism. To avoid or limit mill levy increases, cities and counties throughout the State have also engaged in some unsustainable short-term budget fixes. This includes diverting funds from equipment reserve accounts, deferring maintenance and an increasing reliance on borrowing.
We often hear the popular (but simplistic) suggestions that local budget problems can be solved by “eliminating waste and inefficiency” and that local governments should simply “do more with less.” To a great extent, however, local governments in Kansas have already done that. Since 2004, the State has been diverting tax revenues that were supposed to go to local governments to help keep local property tax rates down. Instead, this money was funneled to the State’s general fund to help cover its budget. To date approximately $2 billion which was supposed to go to local government has been diverted. In response, local governments have had little choice but to become lean.
Another popular view is that government should “act more like business.” When business is tight, businesses cut spending and lay off staff. That sounds logical, except that in Newton, the City’s business is not tight. In fact, it is booming. Demand for City services — police, fire, EMS, streets, utilities, parks — has never been higher and continues to increase every year.
While it’s not irresponsible to oppose tax increases or to support tax decreases, it is irresponsible if this is done without proposing corresponding cuts to service. However, calls for taxes to remain flat or be reduced are not usually accompanied by suggestions as to which services the public would be willing to do without.
Long-term responsible budgeting requires that the City:
Set aside money to pay cash for equipment replacement and routine maintenance.
Plan and save for capital improvements.
Never defer maintenance.
Pay competitive wages to ensure we attract and keep excellent employees.
If one part of the solution is for government to operate more efficiently, it must be recognized that true efficiency comes from highly skilled, highly trained employees who are given the resources to do excellent work.
The City Commission has difficult decisions to make for 2017 and beyond. Among the key issues:
Police staffing needs continue to grow.
There is an urgent need for a new law enforcement facility.
Park maintenance and improvements budgets have been underfunded.
Maintenance costs for the City-owned Warkentin House continue to increase.
City fund balances are below responsible levels.
A 5-mill increase is being considered as a necessary step to begin addressing these issues. What will that mean for the average taxpayer? It will cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $57.50 per year, or $4.79 per month. That’s $86.25 for a $150,000 home ($7.19 a month), and $115.00 for a $200,000 home ($9.58 per month).
A new State-mandated tax lid law for local governments is going into effect which will make local budgeting even more difficult for 2018 and future years. This year may be just a taste of things to come.
— Bob Myers is the current city manager and legal counsel for the city of Newton. He can be reached by phone at 284-6018 or by email at email@example.com