Tuesday, May 21, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Budget games


‘Tis the season for local municipal governments to start outlining their “wish lists” for their local elected leaders.

For some local municipal officials, it’s better than Christmas.

This is an annual ritual in which most local city managers allow their department heads to make a “pitch” to the city council members during various special meetings focused on the budget to try to persuade their leaders why their needs are urgent and worth funding.

If necessary, the dog and pony show will focus on why they’re worth funding sooner, rather than later; worth funding more than other departments within the city; and why their requests should be fulfilled now! (Which is largely the same as the first reason, but it’s often repeated.)

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The exercise becomes the equivalent of “upsizing” a fast-food meal to the “biggie” size.

But this year, the tendency by local officials to ask for more than they could possibly expect to get has been on full display in several cities that have already held their initial discussions on the next budget.


Upping the ante in hopes of getting more
It’s often a stiff competition between the police and fire departments of local cities as to which chief can exaggerate his (or her) needs more – and paint a picture of the dire consequences of failing to fund their list.

Police departments historically have more staff, but fire departments add equipment (like expensive fire trucks) and sometimes multiple fire stations to expand their budgets.

This year, we have to give the award for blatant chutzpah to the Graham Fire Department and its chief Tommy Cole.

Graham officials have been talking about the need to build a fire station in the southern part of the city for about 20 years. Yet nothing has happened to actually take any firm step in that direction.

No location has ever been agreed upon. No architectural drawings have ever been authorized.

Everyone – at city hall and, usually, on the city council – is “for” a second fire station; it’s just that an actual decision to proceed has never been made. At least partly, we suspect, because no one can ever agree where the preferred location should be.

The project is simply imaginary – or aspirational, to put it in a more positive term.

So, in 2021, fire chief Cole has decided to up the ante by proposing that the city doesn’t need just one satellite fire station in the southern reaches of the city, but, instead, now needs two!

One for the southeast quadrant of the city and another for the southwest section.

So, apparently the lesson that city staffers have learned is that if they’re not successful asking for just one of something, why not go and ask for even more?

Fire chief Cole’s attempt to stretch the bounds of reality were not limited to fire stations. He wants to double the size of his department – the full-time paid staff, that is – in one year!

But be careful not to play poker with the chief. He can make such an astounding request for huge increases in his department with an absolutely straight face, never mentioning the relative size of his request as doubling his department.

Typically, city bureaucratic leaders will routinely ask for a couple of new employees for their departments every budget cycle – in hopes that through luck, or surplus revenues, or being a favorite of an individual city council member or several of them, they’ll actually get one or even two more employees on their turf. (Every government we know of thinks it needs more employees, of course – of everything from receptionists to planning department bureaucrats, to publicists for the city, to say nothing of additional firemen and policemen.)

And Graham’s fire chief has done so in the past.

He hasn’t gotten them.

So this year, his “ask” is for 18 new employees – doubling the size of the nine paid full-time employees he has. Those, of course, would both beef up the staffing at the fire station, as well as man the two new satellite fire stations he envisions.


Graham police chief also plays the unrealistic budget game
A close second to the fire chief, however, is Graham’s new police chief, Kristy Cole (no relation to the fire chief with the same surname). In recent years, then-chief Jeff Prichard had often asked for an increase in the number of officers in his department.

Neither the previous city manager (Frankie Maness) nor the city council had deemed the need for more police officers as a high enough priority to fund in the annual budget, so the four-officer request has been among the items cut – either by the manager or the council.

So, the new police chief decides that her opening bid will be not for just another four police officers; she now says she needs 10! Well, actually, a rather self-serving analysis done by the department claims that the department actually needs to almost double – from 38 sworn officers to 71. But she’ll settle for 10, for now.

Graham’s current tax rate is 45.5 cents per $100 valuation. The requests from the two chiefs, if granted, however, would likely require a property tax increase of about 20 cents, or about a 44 percent increase in the tax rate to something around 65.5 cents. And that’s just for the added personnel they want. (To say nothing about the requests from the rest of city government.)

And even that doesn’t include the fire stations, fire trucks, nor the police cars and equipment that the new police officers would need to be outfitted in. Throw in another few pennies or a nickel on the tax rate to finance all those.


Grand Poobah of Graham spending: recreation and parks director
But continuing to earn his role as the Grand Poobah of unrealistic budget requests has to go to Graham recreation and parks director Brian Faucette.

Faucette’s requests are not overly personnel related (although he has his wish list, as well, mostly for the future), but for new structures.

Fully half of all capital expenses for the city over the next five fiscal years would be spent in his department, based on departmental requests submitted to the city manager – about $25 million out of $45 million listed by all department heads.

Faucette knows no restraint. There is no field (baseball, soccer, or football), amphitheater, swimming pool, gazebo, or other amenity that he doesn’t want added to the city’s newest park on Jim Minor Road.

Why, Graham might have to almost double its tax rate over the next five years just to pay for the recreation department’s requests.


Not just a Graham problem
Now lest anyone get the impression that Graham departments are alone in wanting “pie-in-the-sky” spending, we hate to say the spending disease is widespread – indeed, we might say it’s practically universal.

It was also on display in Mebane recently. There the police chief Terry Caldwell was more reasonable than in Graham, asking (as he has for the past two years) for four additional police officers and an investigator.

But the fire chief, Bob Louis, like his counterpart in Graham, wants even more – seven more firefighters and a fourth fire station.

Mebane may need to consider buying different fire trucks. Fire chiefs always want more fire trucks, with better, fancier features. But in Mebane, the chief wants new trucks even before the most recent two are even paid for from an earlier year!

And, recreation, not to be left out, always has a long list of what its leaders always portray as “essential” programs and expenditures.

We haven’t tabulated, but our impression is that we’d find that no area of local government has increased its spending more, or more rapidly, than those variously characterized as “parks and recreation.”


Spending and staffing envy
Another phenomenon in these budget presentations is what one might have to describe as spending and staffing envy.

Frequently – Mebane especially likes to include these comparisons – cities will list a particular department’s staffing or spending levels compared to what are always termed “comparable” cities.

But, somehow, we’ve noticed the rather consistent pattern is that in these comparisons, the local government making the presentation almost always has fewer employees or a lower budget or some other standard less than the “comparably-sized cities” – or at least among the cities chosen for the comparison.

Some sort of distorted “hometown pride,” we guess, is supposed to entice the council members to salivate to raise spending and staffing to higher and ever-higher levels.
Does anyone remember the poor taxpayer?

The working man or woman, the small business person, even the local industries whose taxes pay for all of this government largesse.

Nowhere has the disconnect between citizens and their local governments been more obvious than in the past year, during the coronavirus pandemic. Why, as we pointed out last week, some of the smaller jurisdictions don’t even have their city halls open to the public. (But, somehow, we’re quite sure they’ll need more bureaucrats to staff those closed-down buildings.)

He never really implemented his concept, but then-President Jimmy Carter always touted an approach he called “zero-based budgeting.” The concept was that departments were supposed to have to justify all of their programs and expenditure requests each budget cycle, not just the increases they wanted.

Too often, then and now, government officials assume they’re entitled to at least the amount of (money, staff, etc.) that they had last year. The only question, in their minds, is how much of an increase they should get.

But from a taxpayer perspective, former President Carter’s approach was worthwhile. Probably because of the intransigence of those professional bureaucrats who work in what has subsequently become known as “the swamp” in Washington, his concept was never fully tried.

And, equally unfortunately, the Congress – which is supposed to control the purse strings and provide oversight for federal spending programs – rarely approaches its role with the skepticism that is needed, too often falling prey to the same focus on how much of an increase to include in the next budget for the same old agencies, without much concern for whether their programs are effective, cost-efficient, or otherwise worthwhile for the greater good.

The only good news related to local government spending is that – unlike the federal government – municipal governments at least have to have a balanced budget. So whatever largesse is bestowed on larger and larger local government departments must be accompanied by adequate taxes to pay for the wish list.

That’s about the only restraining factor, because local taxpayers are generally not clamoring to pay ever-higher taxes.

Every now and then, lightening will strike somewhere and a governing board will actually hold the line on new spending and the new taxes to go with it. Or at least hold the line in a couple of departments.

But those cases are exceedingly rare, all to the detriment of the taxpayer.
As a consequence, the cost of government – and its size – just continues to swell.

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