Wednesday, February 11, 2009

News, Niches and the Nine Percent

Or, Springfield Citizen Survey Says

In a "Springfield News-Leader" article, "Sign project to cost $600,000," Wes Johnson answered questions regarding the Wayfinding Signs Project, which five members of the City Council approved through resolution at Monday night's meeting. A companion "Our Voice" column pretty well drove home any editorial comments I might have on the subject but, you know me, I'm not one to let that stop me from commenting. ;)

Johnson's article provided the sort of "meat" voters need to go with their "potatoes" when making decisions about how to vote on tax measures.

The current, 2008-2013 CIP plan, similar to the previous CIP plan which contained the Wayfinding Signs Project, has 134 pages. I don't know how many pages were in the CIP plan that contained that project but, one could wonder, considering only 17 percent of voters turned out on February 3, after intensive community discussion and promotion of the 1-cent police and fire pension sales tax, how many voters read and understood the previous CIP plan prior to voting in support of the 1/4-cent sales tax which included the Wayfinding Signs Program?

What other $600,000 "surprises" are in store for citizens of Springfield who have, or made, no time to read 100+ pages in the plan? And, I wrote "surprises," in quotation marks because it's doubtful many voters are educated about the projects within any given CIP they have voted to fund with a sales tax in the past. We could even wonder how many of our representative City Council members are educated about the projects within any given CIP, remember, Councilman Chiles didn't even know what "wayfinding" was, even though he had been presented, or had the documentation available to him, at least, by the Thursday preceding that City Council meeting.

The difficulty comes in, for citizen voters and their representatives, when these sort of lengthy plans are developed by City staff (based on public input, mind you) and presented to the City Council with a limited amount of time for discussion. The projects included within the plan are a package deal. The Council approves the whole package, and in the amount of time they are allotted to make a decision regarding such plans, it is doubtful they have adequate time to seriously consider each individual project within it. Is it appropriate to be bound by a plan which spans 6 years while the voters who supported it are cutting back due to economic hard times?

The city must project what they believe their sales tax revenue will be from year to year and clearly, they don't have a magic 8-ball which gives them an infallible forecast. Sales tax revenue was projected to be an increased 3 percent for 2008, it has fallen short, in fact, it has decreased rather than increased. So, how can we, as citizens of Springfield, support plans which cannot consider what economic times we may be living in from month to month, let alone year to year?

The Bible says, "You have not because you ask not," our City government seems to have that asking part down pat. Though giving the usual lip service to finding cost efficient or cost free ways to receive public input about why the pension sales tax failed on February 3, there is little doubt a new sales tax measure will be placed on the ballot in an upcoming election.

Councilman Burlison, for some unknown reason, felt he needed to share with the public how he planned to make a motion that a new pension sales tax initiative be placed on the ballot as soon as possible. I'm sort of scratching my head about why he felt the need to share that sentiment publicly. He didn't make the motion so, why tell people, "I was going to make a motion but, now I'm not?" Further, before the vote on February 3, the Council was saying it was up to the voters, the voters should decide. Well, the voters decided but, it would appear that, until the voters decide the right way or the way the City and Council would like them to decide, their decision simply does not count. Now, clearly, and to be fair to Mr. Burlison, that is not to say that some sort of solution to the pension problem must be reached and most people realize that some sort of sales tax will likely, be a part of the mix.

My thoughts are: If the City didn't ask for so many taxes, like the CIP sales tax, the Park's sales tax, and the Transportation sales tax, in most cases for non-core services or lesser priority projects, to later offer $600,000 "surprises," the public might have passed a legitimate and necessary tax like the pension sales tax.

But, all that said, isn't it public apathy that is the problem, in most cases?

I understand, and am even sympathetic, that it isn't just simply a case of apathy, it is often a case of time constraint. How many Joes and Josephines have time to take on the daunting task of reading a 100+ page document to become educated on whether they should or should not support a Capital Improvement Plan sales tax? Should they be required to have to take on such a daunting task in the first place? I recognize they voted on City Council representatives in the hopes that those representatives would take care of such issues for them. After all, isn't that why we have an elected City Council? To represent us in such matters? Aren't they the ones who get paid for that? Well, no, or hell no, depending on your perspective. Much can be said for the public sentiment that the Council volunteered and they knew what they were volunteering for and they shouldn't have volunteered if they weren't up to the task of representing us but, I still think "you get what you pay for."

Neither do I think the media should take the entire blame for not exhaustively educating the public about every detail involved in such a plan. Some people wouldn't read the "cliff notes" version if they were in solitary confinement with nothing but the CIP in the room. The burden of oversight just isn't important enough to them to "waste" the brain cells needed to embrace the information. But, let's say they do spend their time educating themselves about the plan, 1). They might have to quit their day job to make the time. 2). If there are projects which don't meet their approval, their work has just started, now, they have to 3). Take action on what they know by starting to make noise about it. What's the answer? A charter rule against 100+ page governmental documents? A charter rule against 6 year plans?

HOW DO YOU MAKE PEOPLE CARE? Now, there's an age old question. You have the documents available for your perusal. You have the media doing the best they can to give you information about the plan(s) or the tax(es), or the pending legislation, whatever the case may be. You have open Council meetings (According to the 2008 Citizen Survey, 9 percent of you attended them in 2008) and you have a Public Information Office at your disposal, if you care to call with questions. You have City Web sites, City blogs, City Council representatives.

I don't mean to sound cynical but here's the deal, you have an important City Council election coming up in April. For whom will you vote? Will you take the time to even find out about the candidates or, will you sit down in a voting booth (if you bother to even go to the polls) and mark the name you think you might recognize?

Maybe I'm too harsh, maybe I'm too cynical, I don't know but, we'd all like to blame someone else. Joe and Josephine blame the new City Manager, "He has no experience." Pete and Peg blame the City Council, the City Council hired and are charged with the oversight of the City Manager, the City Clerk and the Internal Auditor, that much is true but, NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THEM arrived in their City Council or Mayoral positions in a vacuum. They were voted there, oftentimes with low voter turnout and sometimes by people who said to themselves, "I think I might recognize that name," or "I got a glossy brochure from this candidate," and we all know glossy brochures make for a credible candidate or an astute Council representative, right?

Bob Mace, veteran columnist for the Community Free Press (CFP), put it this way in the new issue of CFP:

"It truly is past time to realize that it’s less a question of who serves on council than it is putting our collective will to addressing the issue of reorganization of Springfield government. Council has an impossible task when approaching funding priorities because the airport, parks and libraries have their own taxing authority and volunteer boards setting individual priorities.

We should be able to postpone park projects in order to deal with high priorities of the pension shortfalls and a hiring freeze for police and firefighters. Our approval of earmarked taxes and allowing municipal departments to have autonomy from the general fund budget leave council with hands tied."

I'd have to agree with Mace, voting away money to fund lesser priority services for a period of years during times of feast has it's downfall when the famine hits. In the end, however, the voter is the one who decides (and sometimes decides and decides and decides until the City likes and agrees with their decision) but, until a greater number of voters and potential voters in the City of Springfield take more of an interest in how the City is spending their hard earned dollars, it is doubtful it will change.

The Community Free Press has an new Managing Editor. He's trying to find his niche. I wish him luck. Council members would like to hear from the public too but, based on the fact that only 9 percent of respondents to the recent 2008 Citizen Survey had even attended a City Council meeting in that year, I'd say he may have a hard "row to hoe" in getting that elusive public input regarding what they'd like to read about. My natural inclination at the moment would be to suggest more frivolous topics which take little thought and bear little consequence to future generations, that way, you could appeal to 91 percent of the population rather than 9 percent. Then again, on the other hand, the media has a responsibility to report on City, State and Federal government issues whether the public bothers to read it or simply uses it to line their bird cages and mulch their gardens.

The times are hard but, I'm hopeful. Some people are waking up and asking, "How did we get here???" If you are one of those people, welcome to the 9 percent.


Busplunge said...

regarding the CIP---a year ago I wrote a blog piece remembering the January 2008 City Council Meeting regarding Council voting on the CIP: Councilman Manley said that the people in these departments are experts in their fields and that the Council needs to rely on these people. He said that they’ve had this to review for a week or so and that it’s ready to pass because the experts said it’s important. He said he wants to vote on it tonight and passing this tonight. He said that this is what the people want and that it should be passed. read it here.

One other thing that you just might have touched upon in a oblique way: Springfield is the 3rd largest city in Missouri and it is run by volunteers. My pappy always told me you get what you paid for.

Jackie Melton said...

I remember that meeting well, and remember Manley's comments (as well as your blog post). Yes, such things are best left to the "experts." (Yes, that was a bit of sarcasm.)

I really feel there should be a charter change to allow Council members to draw a salary of some sort. This sentiment was underscored long ago when I was researching city internal auditors for a story for CFP, and visited at length with an assistant to a City Council member in Kansas City, MO. Not only are City Council members in Kansas City paid but I believe they each have a personal assistant. Of course, of late, it seems Kansas City may be getting more than they "bargained for" in return for their payment. ;)

Thanks for the comment, Mr. Bus Driver.

tom said...

I remember that city council meeting and I remember the "critics" standing in front of council with a simple plea. We are heading for hard economic times and the police/fire pension plan was 140 million in the RED.

It was suggested by the "critics" to allow this perpetual portion of the tax to wither from the vine thus allowing this to be used in conjunction with another tax to fund the ailing retirement plan.

The "critics" were then allowed to hear the rhetoric of one Ralph Manley on the professionalism of city staff and how we should be proud of there hard work and the excellence of which they do there job.

I'm sorry I'm having a hard time with the professionalism of the council when 99.9% of the YES vote had NO clue what was in the omnibus C.I.P.