December 25, 2016

Randell: Groundhog Day comes early —  again — for City Council

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Is it just me or does the annual setting of the tax rate remind you of the Bill Murray classic film “Groundhog Day”?

Bill Randell

Bill Randell

Here is how it usually goes in Worcester:

1.) The city manager submits a budget every spring for the fiscal year starting July 1.

2.) The City Council never cuts anything and approves the budget as submitted.

3.) In November/December, after the vote is tabled once, the council approves as favorable a residential rate as possible to fund that budget that had no cuts.

4.) The usual cast of characters call the Jordan Levy Show and read the same speech that they read the year before at City Council meeting.

5.) Wake up at 6 to “I Got You Babe” and do it all over again.

There was, however, some good news this year, campers, as the City Council actually cut a $3 million contribution to the overfunded North High Construction Fund during the review of the budget.

Voting for the cut: Councilors-at-Large Mike Gaffney, Konnie Lukes and Moe Bergman; and District Councilors Gary Rosen, George Russell, Khrystian King and Candy Mero-Carlson. Voting against the cut was Mayor Joe Petty and his usual voting bloc, District 1 Councilor Tony Economou, Councilor at-large Kate Toomey and District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera.

(It genuinely confuses me how anyone voted “no” on this one — seriously, a “no” vote on this makes no sense to me at all.)

Then last week we actually saw Local Receipts estimates increased by about $2.5 million, with almost $500,000 being cut from the tax levy.

Two very positive steps. Maybe our City Council is starting to be proactive?

[Or maybe they’re reading Worcester Sun: Randell on budget recommendations]

With an eye on the last three years’ tax levies — $261.9 million, $274.9 million and $282.2 million — I want to approach the setting of the city’s tax rate from a completely different angle for fiscal 2018.

Instead of the same old, same old — approving the budget in spring, then setting the tax rate in the fall — the City Council should order City Manager Ed Augustus now to come to them in May with an FY ’18 budget with a $285 million tax levy, a 1 percent increase rather than the 5 percent and 3 percent of the past two years.

How does that sound to you, the taxpayer?

Voting on how to divide expenses between residents and businesses after the budget is set is like dropping a child off at the mall with your credit card: Bad decisions are inevitable.

The City Council needs to take control of the budget, rather than letting the city manager’s budget control them. In turn, the city manager needs to craft a budget that meets tax levy goals proactively determined by the City Council.

To that end I will present and review budget savings ideas over the next couple of months to help meet this 1 percent tax levy increase. Let’s get started:

  • The city is basically running two companies, one for municipal employees and another for school employees, which have identical departments that should be combined; for example, payroll, human resources and purchasing, to name a few. Credit for this one belongs to the Mayor’s Tax Policy Committee Report.

Now for a few ideas I’ve been considering for a while:

1.) If you had an asset that lost more than $187,000 last fiscal year and has cumulatively lost $1.5 million the past 10 years, would you consider it an asset or a liability? Keep in mind, those losses don’t include obligations such as benefits for the employees who work there — health insurance, retirement … OPEB costs! Still wondering what this “asset” is? Hint: We are building a driving range for it that is supposed to cover these losses. (Which is never going to happen.) Green Hill is a great golf course, but it is time for the city to get out of the golf course business. Let a management company run the place and provide income to the bottom line and relief to the taxpayers.

2.) Worcester Wayfinding is by far the biggest waste of taxpayer money that I have seen since we placed the concrete bases around downtown to hold the signs directing people to Worcester Airport. Evidently proponents did not realize people get around with GPS in their car or phone. It may be too late to save the $1 million we wasted on this, but maybe we can finally learn from past mistakes. Try to look for any of these signs when driving around Worcester — it is actually pretty funny … until you remember they just cost the taxpayers $1 million.

3.) Assume a family health insurance plan conservatively costs the city $15,000 per year. Now a city councilor making $30,000 per year costs the taxpayer $45,000 if they join the city’s health plan. We should reduce the compensation of any councilor joining the health insurance plan by the the cost it adds to the taxpayer. Better yet, simply make councilors ineligible for the plan.

In FY ’18 let’s hold the tax levy increase to 1 percent and set the tax rate during budget season. It’s time to end Groundhog Day in Worcester every November/December.

Bill Randell served on a PILOT task force for then-Mayor Tim Murray and is a current member of the Holden Town Meeting Finance Committee. Bill started and operates the local news website Worcester Herald, and is the owner and author of FlyORH, a website dedicated to Worcester Airport. He is also president and founder of Worcester-based businesses Advantage Benefits and ABG Real Estate.

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