Each of us have many choices to make tomorrow but none of the choices is more important than the police and fire pension sales tax.
I suspect I have grappled with the issue for longer than most people since, I began watching the issue and following it for the Community Free Press (CFP) long before most of the community began trying to sort out the details and make an educated decision. That's not a brag, chances are, if I hadn't been covering the issue for CFP, I wouldn't have gone to extreme efforts to fully understand the issue either.
In the beginning, after watching Assistant Fire Chief and Pension Board trustee David Hall make his presentation regarding the status of the police and fire pension system at a City Council luncheon, before City Manager Greg Burris was even City Manager Greg Burris, I leaned toward supporting the sales tax but, later, I wavered and I'll tell you why.
I believe the "worst case budget scenario" presentation Mr. Burris made, at a later City Council luncheon, did more harm than good in trying to garner support for the sales tax. Further, some of the information and tactics on the part of the City to pass the sales tax were very distasteful and some, through omission of some facts, or selective sharing of information, struck me as not quite honest.
As an Independent conservative, many of the items on Burris' list of cuts he claimed will be required to make up the shortfall they need to raise to pay the full actuarial recommended contribution in fiscal 2009-10, were very appealing and I, and, I suspect, many others, began to think maybe, by not passing the 1-cent sales tax, some needed fiscal budgeting changes will come to the City, maybe they will begin to reset their priorities and begin to let some of their wants go by the wayside and address what we all, in our heart of hearts, know are the true core City services.
Core services, in most people's opinions, are not parks and parking garages, redeveloped, dilapidated department stores and, truly, are not even swimming pools being open 6 days a week in the dead of August, or fireworks displays in July.
Core services are the services we need and require to be safe in our neighborhoods and to run our businesses, and lives, free from overly stringent government interference. Core services are, primarily: SAFETY; clean water; sanitary sewers; utility service; clean air to breathe; and the ability, through infrastructure maintenance and unencumbered roadways, for movement of the people. Those are services the City should provide (now, how they are provided, that, is debatable) and they should be providing them without the help and assistance of non-profit groups, in my opinion. The City has, in the past, commended some non-profits for doing work in core City service areas so that the City is not forced to expend as much money as they would otherwise to provide them but, if the City was not spending so much of its money on non-core City services would the City even need that help and assistance?
The new City Manager and City Council have spent a little time in exercises intended to determine, "what are core city services?" Well, I believe we all know what they are, these exercises are futile and instead of simply identifying core City services they are identifying core City services with an attached wish list of everything that each member of the Council, personally, feels is important.
There are many important services the City provides which are not "core," services, they are services a City might provide when times are good and a pension fund is flush, unfortunately, our City continued to provide non-core services during times when the pension fund was not flush and times were not good. In fact, they withheld $10 million from the pension fund over four years during a time when they were purchasing the Heers building unnecessarily. Mr. Prost merely needed their approval to extend a loan with Great Southern and held two different loan approval letters in his hand the night the City Council swept him and other well respected Springfield business leaders aside to, instead, cut Prost out and take over the responsibility of the Heers building, accompanied by interest payments, until it could be sold to another owner who now, just like Prost, is unable to uphold an agreed upon timeline of redevelopment. I could say more, as an Independent conservative, about the City's ill use of taxpayer dollars but, that is only part of the point I am trying to make.
It is very tempting, indeed, to vote no for the sales tax and try to force the City to cut out their ongoing redevelopment plans and change their introverted, "I-want, vision-20/20" from looking in a continued, ill-conceived direction.
Then, I read the News-Leader's, by now, infamous "Our Voice" column announcing their position against the sales-tax, which, by the way, I felt was an overall, reasonable position.
Then, I read Cindy Rushefsky's foot stomping letter, which didn't sway me.(Unfortunately, though I searched extensively, I could not find a link to the Rushefsky letter which was published in the News-Leader after the News-Leader's "Our Voice" column was published).
...And, then I read the statement emailed to me by Councilman Doug Burlison and my potential no vote, again swayed, ever so softly, back toward yes. Here is the reason why:
Burlison wrote, in part:
"The resolution that we recently passed has added other protections that secures the interests of the taxpayer, and the pension fund recipient. The current management, and a majority of the upcoming City Council will not have had a hand in getting us to this point, yet will need the tools to fix this problem.
The question is, "Do we take care of this now?" I think at the rate of at least $39,000 per day of interest income lost, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" I have no personal love of taxes, and have worked to avoid increasing them. Higher taxes are not good for any public economy, but then again, neither is bankruptcy. If we do pass this measure, we need to work to shorten it's duration as much as possible; but before anything else, we need to insure that the shortfall in the pension fund gets taken care of, completely.
My main motivation behind my support of the 1 cent proposal is to avoid passing this problem on to others so they will have to take care of it in the future. Instead of handing down a list of bad choices to subsequent councils, and instead of sticking my head in the sand and letting my children's generation deal with this, I will take a stand that is politically unpopular with several in our community, and vote in support of the sales tax. The honest truth is that this proposal is the cheapest way to shore up this pension plan, and any delays will greatly increase the mountain of liability that we will have to overcome."
Bottom line, my thinking is this:
If the tax is passed, the City will be able to afford the genuine core City services they need and are obligated to provide to the citizens of Springfield, and the fact of the matter is, Mr. Burris and the Finance Department of the City of Springfield may recommend how money is spent in the next fiscal budget but it is our elected, representative City Council who will approve the budget. So, what do we know about our representative Council who will determine what are core City services and where money should be budgeted in the next fiscal year? We know who five of those Council members will be: Doug Burlison, Dan Chiles, Cynthia Rushefsky, Ralph Manley and Scott Bailes.
We have some opportunities to effect change in April among the City Council, we will determine tomorrow who will survive by a primary City Council election. Whether the pension sales tax passes or not will determine where their work will lie. I'd like to give our new City Council an opportunity to focus on providing funding for legitimate core City services in the next fiscal budget, we all really KNOW what those core City services are, we need the City of Springfield, led by the new, elected, representative City Council to recognize what are true core City services and what are services on a want and wish list, and we need them to act responsibly in, what are shaping up to be, some tough economic times, not just for our City but nationally. We need to hold this future Council, of our choosing, responsible for, as Councilman Burlison wrote, "work(ing) to shorten it's (the sales tax's) duration as much as possible."
I'd like to see the new Council have a little elbow room in which to make these decisions. While I am sympathetic with some who would like to force the City to pay the consequences for past actions in how they have dealt with the police and fire pension fund, forcing a City Manager and a City Council who were not in office during the creation of this crisis, out of what appears to be spite, to deal with the sins of past management and Councils, doesn't seem the most wise or forward thinking response.
I'd like to give a new Council and City Manager the opportunity to get our City back on the right track without punishing them for a crisis in which they played no role, and that is why I, personally, plan to vote in support of the pension sales tax tomorrow. This is also why it is very important that citizens place the right candidates on the City Council in April. Choose carefully tomorrow. Choose carefully in April. Find out as much as you can about the candidates, they will be your representatives, and, whether they are paid or not, they are accountable to you.
If we vote well and communicate well with the incoming Council, perhaps they will represent us well as they enter into budget discussions and determine where they can cut expenditures for the future. We will be voting them in and, inevitably, whatever comes of their service is the voters' responsibility. In other words, lack of attention on the part of the public in the past is where the buck stops. Whatever action or inaction was taken in the past on the part of your elected, representative City Council is your responsibility.
I'm not telling anyone else how to vote but, I felt it was a fair and reasonable thing to do to inform you of how, after all the study, research and open minded consideration I have spent on the issue of the police and fire pension sales tax, I came to the conclusion, in my own mind, that it is best to vote in favor of getting the issue of a sales tax behind us and move forward toward holding our new, come April, City Council accountable to represent all of us in regards to the provision of core services. We elect them and we are responsible, in the end, for the decisions we allow them to make on our behalf. For now, I believe it is in the best interest of our City to support the sales tax and then, do everything we can to keep ourselves educated and involved in the future actions of our representative Council.