Yeah, I know. The title of this blog post is kind of like a headline saying "Dog seen chasing a squirrel." What's obvious really doesn't need mentioning.
But even though we expect government officials to play games when they're talking about their budget, it still makes sense to point out specific instances of this so we don't become overly accustomed to the game-playing.
Yesterday the Salem Reporter ran a story about ways officials at the City of Salem want to cut the city general fund budget in light of a potential defeat of a controversial employee payroll tax to be levied on everybody who works in the city limits whether or not they live in Salem.
The tax will be voted on in the November election because a business group gathered many more signatures than were necessary for a referendum petition after the City Council approved the payroll tax in a narrow 5-4 decision without a vote of the people -- even though most citizens who weighed in on this issue said the tax should have such a vote.
City officials have been saying that about half of the $29 million to be raised each year by the payroll tax would go to maintaining existing services and about half would go for new services. However, until now it wasn't clear which existing services those officials would want to cut if the payroll tax fails.
The Salem Reporter story tells us what those services are, based on a staff report to be discussed at next Monday's City Council meeting.
Salemites may see more trash, slower emergency response times and the closure of the West Salem branch of the public library if voters fail to approve a new tax on wages in November.
That’s according to a new city report released Wednesday outlining proposed budget cuts over the next five years if the tax fails.
The Salem City Council will have a work session on Monday, Sept. 18, to hear the proposal and begin the conversation about changes to the budget.
“Obviously we’re not going to make any changes until November 8, when we know what the results of the election are, but we’re planning for that contingency and looking at what the impacts and ramifications would be to that,” City Manager Keith Stahley said.
That conversation starts Monday, when councilors will view a proposed list of specific cuts compiled through recommendations from city department heads. The proposal lays out cuts each year through 2028 to keep the city budget balanced without any additional revenue.
Keep in mind that city officials are barred from campaigning for the payroll tax, being government employees. So the proposed cuts are a backdoor way to urge citizens to vote for the tax. Note that city department heads came up with the recommended cuts, not a citizen committee.
So it isn't surprising that slashing funds for the West Salem and main libraries, along with homeless shelters, are some of the eye-catching cuts that city officials threaten will be made unless the payroll tax is approved by voters.
Unfortunately, since the Mayor and eight city councilors are unpaid and have no staff of their own, they have to rely on complex staff reports such as the one about the city's budget problems when agenda items are discussed at City Council meetings.
This means that the cuts arrived at by the department heads likely will dominate the discussion next Monday, even though other cuts might well make more sense.
My own view is that since the Police and Fire Departments consume most of the general fund budget, and there's good reason to believe that significant cost savings could be made in these departments, that's where most of the cuts should be made.
I hope that Mayor Hoy and the City Council will address the question of the ending fund balance, which jumped out at me when I perused this figure showing how proposed cuts in the staff report would impact the budget.
OK, the goal is to stay above the fund balance policy throughout the five budget years (bottom line in the figure above). But given the city's budget problems and the projected cuts, it seems that the goal should be to keep the fund balance as close to the goal as possible to minimize those cuts.
Instead, city officials are indicating that the fund balance ranges from $7.6 million over the goal in FY2024 to $1.6 million over the goal in FY2028.
Since the proposed cuts to Salem libraries are about $1.9 million over those five years, reducing the fund balance much closer to the policy would eliminate the need for those cuts except, perhaps, in FY2028. But if this was done, the headline of the Salem Reporter story wouldn't be so dramatic.
Which could explain why it wasn't done.