Sunday, August 24, 2008
Smoke and Mirrors
Budget Time at City Hall The Raytown Finance Committee will soon begin a series of meetings to review budget recommendations from the city administration for the 2009 / 2010 fiscal year. A representative from each Ward of the Board of Aldermen serves on the city’s Finance Committee. The Finance Committee will either endorse or change the recommendations and then send the budget to the entire Board of Aldermen for approval. Income figures for the upcoming 2009/2010 budget year have not officially been released, but the word is that the city’s financial picture is looking bleak. Revenues, which were up earlier this year, have been dwindling due to the combined economic hammer blows of a housing mortgage crisis and escalating gasoline prices. The five member Finance Committee, Joe Creamer, Jim Hamilton, Christine White, Pat Ertz and Clifford Sargeon, have their work cut out for them in the next two months as they hammer out a workable budget for the city. Smoke and Mirrors The Committee should take a lesson from the city’s recent past on how not to balance the budget. The last two years the Committee and in turn, the Board of Aldermen have taken nearly all of the city’s street maintenance fund to retire capital improvement bonds. That action was shortsighted and has resulted in serious deterioration of city streets. Raytowners approved a one-half cent sales tax dedicated towards street maintenance. The voters were promised the revenue from the “half cent sales tax” would be used specifically for transportation. Over 90% of the money collected is supposed to be earmarked for street maintenance (asphalt overlay, curb and sidewalk repair, etc.) The city administration argued that the bond money was used to improve streets. Therefore, paying off the debt with transportation sales tax dollars was keeping in line with the promise to the voters. That argument is false. Voters were specifically promised that the transportation sales tax dollars would be used to repair streets. They were not told it would be used to bail the city out of financial crisis. To make matters worse, the new Walmart planned for construction on 350 Highway is expected to take up to 18% of the sales tax revenue that was promised to be used for maintenance of city streets. Instead, the money will be used to pay for the cost of the Walmart parking lot and a bus depot for use by the Area Transportation Authority for the life of the bonds – 23 years. City officials justify the Walmart connection by saying the parking lot and bus depot are transportation related. More smoke and mirrors – the voters were not told their tax dollars would go to Walmart. They were told the money would be used on their streets. The Finance Committee, and, in turn the Board of Aldermen, should abandon this policy of smoke and mirrors in budget writing and rebuild the faith between the taxpayers and City Hall. Find money in the general fund to replace the tax dollars being siphoned off by the Walmart project. Give the taxpayers the good neighborhood streets they were promised when they approved the transportation sales tax. No doubt, such a policy change will run into opposition from the city administration. But it is what must be done for the Board to regain the confidence of their constituency. Board members need to remember that their first responsibility is to the voters who elected them. City Finance Committee meetings are open to the public. For a schedule of the Finance Committee Budget meetings call city hall at 737-6000.