It’s going to be a tough budget year. We can all agree on that. So … who do you want making the tough choices about spending priorities?
“I have a lot of faith and trust that you and staff can come up with a budget that we can live with,” Vice Mayor Frank Lucente said, referencing as “you” city manager Mike Hamp and his staff, at a work session of Waynesboro City Council last week in a discussion of the upcoming 2009-2010 budget process.
This was, I will note, before the news last night that the city is facing a $1.4 million budget shortfall. I’ll repeat that – a $1.4 million budget shortfall. The basics are that sales-tax revenues are down way, way below projections – which makes sense now that we know what we know about the economy. It probably should have made more sense a few months ago when we were setting the budget.
The staff that Lucente has faith in being able to “come up with a budget that we can live with” for the next fiscal year is the same staff that is responsible for the bad projections that landed us here in the hole that we’re in right now, of course. And no question it’s a hole – $1.4 million represents, oh, about three and a half, four percent of the city budget, and this on top of the cuts that were made in May during budget deliberations that pushes the grand total in cuts from an already lean budget to over $2 million.
It’s curious that Lucente proclaims his faith in the staff given his recent track record. We’re talking about the man who, speaking out of the other side of his mouth, engineered the sacking of Hamp’s predecessor in the big chair in City Hall, Doug Walker, who came to be perceived largely through the PR efforts of Lucente as pushing his own agenda instead of the City Council’s during his time as city manager.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The last time that Lucente and I spoke was over lunch following last year’s council elections to discuss a column that I had written that was critical of Lucente for insisting that Walker take the lead in proposing cuts to get the 2008-2009 city budget in balance. And now that we’re back to Square Zero with that effort, sure, let’s just have the staff take care of the heavy lifting again, right?
“Once that tax rate’s done, and you present your budget, I think I can look at that – I don’t, I, unlike you, don’t want to line-item it as long as it is in balance,” Lucente said in the work session last week, referencing as the first “you” Hamp again, and as the second “you” City Councilwoman Lorie Smith, who Lucente likes to paint as a liberal, except that she takes seriously the notion that the voters elect City Council to serve as the stewards of their tax dollars first and foremost, which otherwise sounds quite conservative and downright commonsensical.
“The city manager’s job is to bring us a budget based on what he views his organization needs to deliver services. That’s his budget. And then when he brings it to us, it’s our budget. And at that point, we’ve got to decide if the reductions that he has suggested are in line with what we as a council can live with and own and defend to the citizens,” Smith said, explaining her position on budgeting for 2009-2010 at the work session. That’s not exactly a novel concept, of course. Neither is the idea that Smith and City Councilwoman Nancy Dowdy are advancing in terms of the line-by-line review that they want to see done as the budget process for 2009-2010 ramps up. Smith and Dowdy want to have the council follow the model that has been in place for several years in which the heads of city departments present to city leaders a report on what their departments have done in the past year and what they have in terms of challenges and responsibilities in the coming year.
That seems to make sense when you’re talking about budgeting. Budgets aren’t just numbers, after all. They are living, breathing documents that set the agenda for how an organization achieves its mission. But Lucente, in particular, has had an anti-presentations jones for years running now, complaining about their length and their usefulness in the decisionmaking process. He hasn’t changed his tune on that anytime recently. “As far as the budget process goes, I, too, think we can streamline it, cut out the presentations, tell what the departments do. Once the tax rate is set, we know what that is going to be,” Lucente said. “Because you’re the manager of the city,” Lucente said, again referring to Hamp as the “you,” “and you should know what you want in the specific areas rather than I. So I wouldn’t want to micromanage that process to that degree. What’s big to me is the overall picture – which is I think it’s important what the tax rate is going to be, and we’ll decide that as a group. And then present your budget. And based on that, it should be in balance.”
Sounds to me that Lucente isn’t concerned in the slightest in his “overall picture” about what government actually does every day – educating our children, keeping us safe, picking up our trash, the nuts and bolts things. His singular focus and claim to having even the least bit of conservative bona fides is that he has his hand on the tax rate. His utter lack of basic interest in how that money is spent says something else about his brand of conservatism.
“There is also a responsibility to understand the ramifications of those cuts and the impact on this community, and the long-term ramifications of those cuts,” Dowdy said during last week’s work-session discussion. “It’s very easy to sit here and say, Well, we’re going to cut this. We also have a responsibility to understand the ramifications of those cuts. And I think we can learn from last year’s budget when it was put out there that it would not impact services, the changes that we were making, the cuts we were making.
“I don’t know about other people around the table, but I’ve had numerous calls about people that needed those services and lost those services, and I continue today to get those calls. We have a responsibility to communicate to this community the impact of the changes of the cuts that we’re making. That’s part of this process, too. We need to understand as a council what we’re asking from our staff,” Dowdy said.
And I would add to that – we need to understand as a city what we’re asking from our City Council. Because no offense to them, but we didn’t elect Mike Hamp and Pat Nicosia to make the hard choices about where our money ought to go. That’s why we have a City Council, and it’s time for those who seem to love to hide behind the hired hands any time tough choices need to be made all the while claiming the mantle of leaders to get out from their cowering in the corner and do something.
– Column by Chris Graham