Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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Graham, NC 27253
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Burlington officials behave worse than drunken sailors

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Well, we’ve lamented before, but we might as well express disappointment again at the spendthrift tendencies of local governments, manifest this week as in Burlington.

There, this week, Burlington city council members decided to spend a whopping 6 percent in additional salaries for all city employees (other than those police officers and dispatchers to whom even higher raises had been given in January).

This, unlike in the case of police and dispatchers, without any evidence of high turnover, vacancy rates, or impediments to new hiring.

In the old days, it was often said of such proclivities that government officials were spending money like drunken sailors.  But then-President Ronald Reagan came to the defense of spendthrift seamen by noting that at least they were spending their own money, as opposed to governments who are, inevitably, spending someone else’s, i.e., the taxpayers.

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Also, as we had feared and written about previously (including last week), one jurisdiction’s raises were used as at partial justification for ratcheting up each others’ salaries.  In early February, Mebane’s city council pointed to those higher Burlington police salaries as partial rationalization for increasing its department’s salaries.

Mebane at least had a so-called salary study, even if deeply flawed, on which it based the higher pay for police and some other departments.

But then Mebane’s council layered on another 3 percent across the board for all city employees.

Next it was Graham, which later in the month added $2.00 per hour to all of its municipal employees’ pay rates.

Without regard to actual needs, or objective standards about salary rates, vacancies, turnover, etc. in individual departments.

This week, it was Burlington’s turn – again.

And, not surprisingly, Burlington officials happily pointed to Mebane’s and Graham’s recent raises as yet one more rationale for why Burlington needed to raise all of its other employees’ paychecks.

One of the issues connected with all these raises – and others, at ACC, various departments in Alamance County government, and bonuses in Gibsonville, for instance – is why the urgency to bestow the raises and bonuses now.

Traditionally, governments operate – at least ostensibly – with an annual budget that runs from July 1 to June 30 the following year.

We’re just 120 days out from then.  So why now?  Why such a breathless rush to bestow more of the taxpayers’ money on town and city employees?

It seems to us the underlying result, if not the intended purpose, is to take the raises – and their enormous fiscal impact – out of any regular budget context.

For one thing, all of these “partial-year” raises understate the full magnitude of the costs involved.  In Burlington’s case, the raises are to take effect on April 1, just 90 days prior to the start of the fiscal year.

So the impact in the next fiscal year will be four times this year’s  impact. This week’s 3-month hike costs about $320,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year, city finance director Peggy Reece told the city council.

The corollary is that the full-year fiscal impact will be almost $1.3 million – not counting the additional almost $1.3 million for the full-year impact of the police department raises bestowed in January.

And, in some cases, jurisdictions – claiming that they have some “extra Covid money” – are making recurring expense decisions with one or more non-recurring pots of money.

By expediting these personnel costs, officials are avoiding any context, or competition, for whether such salary increases are really a top priority in a full comparison and evaluation of all budget requests, all city needs, all areas of potential municipal expenditures.

Which departments might be actually having a personnel or other crisis that would merit additional funding?  Doesn’t matter, or didn’t this week.

Additionally, all of the jurisdictions that have given across-the-board raises avoid any consideration of the job performance of any individual employee(s). Or even of allowing city administrators, personnel directors, or department heads to make such evaluations.

Raises are given without regard to quality of performance; without regard to longevity (either long-term of having been hired just yesterday); without regard to any other criteria whatsoever. If you’re on the payroll, you’ll get the raise.

It seems to us another result will be that taxpayers will be short-changed in any future budget consideration.

Will taxpayers get a property tax rate reduction?

Unlikely, since their leaders will have given away most, if not all, leftover funds – and, as noted above, laid a predicate for much higher expenses in the new fiscal year.

Why there simply “won’t be enough” money to consider any benefit to taxpayers.

As usual.

But in Burlington, the prospects for the future are even more bleak.

City council members this week started ruminating about a potential bond referendum – initially in regard to putting a new “bubble,” of some sort, over the aquatic center.

Beware.

We suspect this is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

That little bond referendum will grow as every other city department lines up to get its pet projects hidden in a big bond package.

Burlington voters have historically been favorable to long-term financing for certain city needs.

In most cases – certainly in Burlington in the past – these bond measures are little more than diversions designed to get voters to agree to tax themselves even more to pay for bond projects that should have been paid for up front.

But the most fundamental question is whether some of these functions are actually essential city services deserving of any financing, much less one spread over decades.

Is it really a priority – or more accurately, vital – to have an indoor municipal swimming pool in the first place? It was even originally built to be enclosed.

Frankly, any expenditures for so-called parks and recreation purposes should be lower on any scale of need that truly essential purposes – like providing water, sewer, and garbage service, fire and police protection.

But in many local municipalities, the growth of recreation spending has been astronomical compared to truly essential city services.

Residents in Burlington need to be following these discussions more carefully.

Because, to our surprise, even council members who purported to be fiscally conscientious in election season seemed to be lining up for even more spending on the horizon.

We might be better off to have a few drunken sailors in city government.  They could hardly spend the taxpayers’ money any more irresponsibly.

 


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