Sacrificial Slaying of Core Services should be Carefully Weighed
There is one criticism to the suggestion the Springfield City Council deny City manager Burris' recommendation to make the full actuarial recommended contribution of over $13 million in fiscal 2009-10 to the pension plan which should be addressed. The criticism is that those who have criticized the City for not making a full contribution in 2005-2008 are now suggesting the City not make it in the next fiscal year. On the surface, that seems like a fair criticism. It would appear those who suggest the City not make the full contribution in the next fiscal year are taking a hypocritical stance. The difference is, the economic times are not the same today as they were in those previous years when the City failed to make the full contribution and there are other variables to be considered.
The City Council, certainly, should be seeking to contribute every single penny they are able to save in the next budget deliberation cycle to put into the police and firefighter's pension plan. That is a no brainer. They should severly cut the next fiscal budget but, there should be a requirement to exercize some common sense and make those drastic cuts selectively and responsibly.
One of the key questions the City management should be asking and the City Council should be considering in the next budget deliberation cycle is:
Is it going to do the City less damage in the future if the City continues a hiring freeze in the police and fire departments and continues its hold on the police and fire acadamies in order to make the full contribution in the next fiscal year, or would it do less harm to the City should they make as much of a contribution as possible but, not the full actuarial contribution, and not at the expense of continuing the hiring freeze in the police and fire departments and the hold on the academies?
At a Council luncheon in September 2008, a new City manager attended, I believe, his first Council luncheon in his official capacity as City manager. He led the Council in a brainstorming session designed to narrow the field of issues viewed by the City Council as "long term priority issues." You can view the list of long term priorities the Council came up with here.
To my knowledge, the Council and manager have not yet revisited the subject of long term priorities but, what was interesting to me was that Burris presented the Council with the most current Council resolution reaffirming the City Council's six priorities. Those six priorities were: Public Safety; Transportation/Traffic; Quality of Life and Economic Development; Communication with Citizens; Center City Revitalization; and Long-Range Planning/Vision 20/20 for next year.
The resolution (RES8721) (Bill 99-438) was passed in 1999 and, in the background information provided, it was noted the six priorities were not listed in priority order. The background also listed the "Action Step Priorities" for each of the six listed priorities.
If we consider the City's recent Citizen Survey report, in planning for the city's future, 98 percent of the respondents placed, "keeping the crime rate low" as their number one priority; the number two priority of the citizens who responded to the survey, by 93 percent, was ensuring quality public health services are available, and respondents felt the city should give the most emphasis to traffic flow, street and infrastructure maintenance, and the quality of police protection in the next two years.
It appears the citizens of Springfield and, at least, a past City Council recognized the importance and priority positions of street and infrastructure maintenance, traffic flow, and quality police protection. Though the City Council's 1999 resolution pointed out their priorities were not listed in the order of priority, one can't help but notice public safety and transportation/traffic are listed in the number one and two spots. Arguably, health department services address issues of public safety as much as the police and fire departments.
As the City manager makes recommendations for budget cuts in City departments, and as the City Council weighs those recommended budget cuts, consideration should be taken for the priorities of public safety, public health services and street and infrastructure maintence. That is, if the City manager and City Council are weighing what is best for the City rather than, solely, what is best for the police and fire pension plan, and certainly, getting the pension plan to solvency is in the best interest of the City, as well.
It may be, at this particular time in our City's history, that what would be in the best interest of the City, as a whole, would be for the City Council to approve making as much of a contribution to the police and fire pension plan as possible, reopening the police and fire academies, and ending the freeze on hiring in those departments. They might also want to consider cutting, where possible, in the health department while not jeopardizing the well being of the citizens of Springfield, and perhaps, they should consider ceasing new infrastructure projects and focus, instead, on maintaining the streets and infrastructure we currently have.
We are in a recession. Sales tax revenue receipts have not been coming in at the City's predicted rate in the recent past, and are not expected to reach the level expected by City staff for the foreseeable future. These are not the same economic times in which to make a full contribution to the police and fire pension plan as they were in 2005-2008.
It is the duty and obligation of the City manager to have a key focus on making recommendations which best serve the entire City and its residents, and it is the obligation of the City Council to implement policies and base their approval of fiscal budgets on criteria which will best serve the populace of the entire City. State law does not require the full contribution be made in the next four years.
The 1 percent sales tax to fund the police and fire pension plan was not approved Tuesday. Citizens spoke. There was a larger turnout at the polls than, historically, turn out for a February election. Burris has complained not enough people got out to vote. There have been no complaints on the part of the City, in the past, when there was a low voter turnout which resulted in the passage of a sales tax, why should there be complaint over low voter turnout when a tax is defeated? The City needs to simply accept the voice of the people and focus on the next fiscal budget at this time.
If the City chooses to place this tax before the voters again in June, they will be caught up in budget deliberations and a campaign to pass a 1-cent sales tax at the same time. To set themselves up to be so distracted, due to promoting a sales tax, that they cannot give adequate and proper consideration to the next fiscal budget does not seem wise.
So, in response to the criticizer of the "critics" (whoever they might be) who disagreed with past City Council's failure to make the full actuarial pension contribution in the past but, who believe the City should carefully weigh what is the best action for the City, as a whole, rather than the pension system, alone, in 2009:
We are not living in the past and today, we are in an economic recession. While making the full contribution would have been the best action from 2005-2008, today, there are other considerations. It might not be the best action for the City to make the full actuarial recommended contribution in 2009, and it is, certainly, worth careful consideration.