December 7, 2016

Randell: Let’s spend a little more time on cutting expenses in Worcester

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A friend of mine read my column in Sunday’s Worcester Sun on the Mayor’s Tax Policy Committee Report and what I thought of the group’s recommendations.

Bill Randell

Bill Randell

Ever the critic, my smart and business-savvy friend thought I could have emphasized my own ideas a bit more.

To be clear, and to rebut a central tenet of the report, Worcester’s problem is most certainly not a lack of revenue; it is a lack of discipline when it comes to spending. There are better choices to me made, and quite frankly, more action needed from our civic leaders.

We have a spending problem, period. And before I can support any new taxes or fees, we need to address this by considering obvious and looming alternatives.

Consolidating several comparable operations between City Hall and the nearby School Department administration building deserves serious thought. And while we’ve already gotten out of the healthcare (nursing homes, hospital) and airport businesses — I’ll keep saying it — we must continue to divest ourselves from other non-essential businesses that cost us millions of dollars to operate each year with often underwhelming returns.

Businesses like:

  • golf courses
  • convention centers
  • train stations
  • parking garages

There are good deals to be made with firms in these industries which might be better fits for the management and financial variables involved. Instead when I watch City Council meetings on Tuesday nights all I hear is discussion about dog parks, mounted police patrols, benches, food trucks and sanctuary cities.

I often wonder why we don’t have the City Council handle more problems directly, but maybe this indecision and lack of focus is why we have task forces like the tax committee.

Don’t we owe it to those people who put all of this time and effort into the report to make sure some action is taken? Many times the results of these panels are merely presented at a press conference and put aside to gather dust. But there’s no time like the present: In this report there is one thing the City Council can do right now without any special state legislation that would provide relief to the taxpayer. It should be voted on right now!

The city should capitalize on new growth (added revenue from new buildings, renovations and redevelopments) by simply allowing it to increase property values — and decrease the tax rate on all property owners — rather than adding it to the annual 2.5 percent spike to the tax base.

And while the Mayor’s Tax Policy Committee report didn’t cover this, Local Receipts are coming in much higher than expected for fiscal 2016, according to the city auditor. Conservatively it looks to be at least $3 million.

Should not City Council review the Local Receipts budget estimate for FY17 in light of this report? Increasing the projection could reduce the tax levy by a significant amount and save all taxpayers money.

The Philly Plan model also did not make the report, but tell me how many developments in this city don’t end up with a TIF [tax increment financing plan] of some sort? Why don’t we just make it official and target 10 underutilized properties for commercial development and give them the Philly — or in our case the Hanover Theatre — Treatment and:

  1. Lock in current assessed values for ten years
  2. Waive all permitting and water/sewer connection fees.

Think it would be easier to market a parcel that has these features? A similar idea worked at South Worcester Industrial Park. Can you say Wyman-Gordon parcel? A slots parlor would have looked great there. We must implement more of these cost-saving measures.

In the end the task force has done a great job of identifying problems and recommending solutions. Now it’s time for councilors to take a stand, at least, and create a record of their votes for the residents of Worcester. Last Tuesday, Nov. 29, I watched the City Council meeting which lasted 52 minutes and 43 seconds, including 14 minutes of public comments. There was little to no discussion on any of this. This needs to change.

As much as officials should heed more fiscal discipline, the City Council needs to invest its time in issues like many raised by this committee that residential and commercial taxpayers, alike, consider essential. How about we consider setting a goal for the city manager for fiscal 2018 to commit to not to increasing the tax levy; and rather do some prospective versus retrospective budgeting?

Building budgets by making no cuts and constantly bungling how to divide expenses equitably between the residential and commercial taxpayer needs to end. Send your kid into a store to buy sneakers with an unlimited budget and they will come out with a $250 pair (at least!). On other hand you give them $100 to buy some sneakers and they will come out with a $100 pair.

Let’s put dog parks, mounted horse patrols, food trucks and sanctuary cities on the back burner.

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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