Wrist Slaps for All!

I went to the town hall meeting about Gainesville city budget issues last night. I got there a little late because I had to rush from the other side of town after getting done with a job later than I had hoped. I arrived at about 6:10 as city manager Russ Blackburn was giving a Powerpoint presentation on what a great job the city is doing keeping expenses down. Then came the much anticipated citizen comments, so I was right on time.

About 100 people had come out for the 6pm meeting in some lousy weather. Most of them had come to complain about high taxes or some other injury they felt they were suffering, which is the very purpose of a meeting like this. Someone should have told the city commissioners. Instead, it was another chance to tell the citizens why they were ill-informed and just wrong.

After the first citizen commenter finished, there was a few seconds of scattered applause. Mayor Lowe, who has very high standards for decorum, warned the people not to applaud because applause disparities might, “make people feel bad.” However, when one of they city’s plants took her turn to speak, she spent most of her comment time scolding the citizens for, “not doing their homework before speaking.”  She said this several times without rebuke from the Mayor for making anyone “feel bad”.

No matter what complaint about higher taxes and fees, which are very real things, the city commissioners blew off the concerns of the citizens as if they were imaginary. Only one man came out and said what most of us were thinking: “This is a waste of time. We just need to vote you people out.”  Amen, brother!

Baited and Switched

During the past Mayoral race, I can recall how the fire assessment fee was brought up. It was always to be levied against churches and non-profits. Over and over again, this was how it was framed. It was to be against churches and non-profits. Now we have discovered that they were not the only targets. Everyone is getting robbed!

It seems to me that this was the intention all along. But churches and non-profits were trotted out as the “someone else” that the public could accept as the victim of a higher tax burden.  As long as it’s someone else that gets hit, it doesn’t move us. Now that people who live in the unincorporated area are getting their bills from the county, all property owners get to be that special “someone else”. Ah, yes. To borrow from Martin Niemoller, “When they came for the churches and non-profits, I did nothing.”

Now that the election is over, and reality is setting in, we need to consider why this new fee, and all the higher fees and higher utility rates happen. Simply put, it is the city’s addiction to meet needs that are not their responsibility. For instance, it is going to cost millions to narrow streets in Gainesville to make them more “pedestrian-friendly”. Then we are going to clog those marrow streets with nearly-empty buses and trolley cars. The money spent on this Soviet-style central planning is what SHOULD have been spent on the fire department. But selling people on “the street narrowing tax” would be a harder sell, so they deceive you by telling you that fire services must be cut if they don’t have the fee. The truth is, stupid planning adventurism must be cut!

We recently had to pass a bond to build the One-Stop Homeless Center and to refurbish a golf course that the city admits WILL NEVER MAKE MONEY. Every other golf course in the county makes money, but we need to take out a loan to keep this one running UNprofitably. Instead of whipping out the city’s Visa card, why not pass a Homeless Shelter and Golf Course Assessment Fee? Instead, we are baited and switched again. This expense will show up under “debt service” or something else that hides its meaning next year, when we have to make the payments. None of this stuff is free. And it’s all part of the reason you’re getting hit with a new fee.

And let’s not forget our glorious electric bills. In the city’s budget summary, they even tell us that rates must be raised because of the rate-payers’ conservation measures. It only makes sense. When they depend on tens of millions of dollars to flow in from GRU, and their customers cut back on how many kilowatt hours they use, they have to raise what they are charging per kilowatt hour! So, if you are like me, trying to implement cost savings by paying for new windows and solar tubes and solar hot water heaters out of my own pocket, and you wonder why your rates keep climbing, wonder no more! What you do means nothing! It’s all about the city and their appetite for your money!

Next time, elect people who want to do less with the power of city government. Elect people who want to cut back on government, cut back on fees and taxes, and have fewer needs to harass you. Elect me, Don Marsh, to be your at large city commissioner next March.

Admit it. It’s a new tax.

Last night the Gainesville City Commission voted 6-1, only Lauren Poe dissenting, to levy a fire services fee on all property owners. Churches and non-profits are not to be exempt.

The Gainesville Sun reported that, “the assessment — which technically is not a fee or a tax — would raise $7,166,675 next fiscal year”. This is the kind of lying that is done to try and fool the public into thinking that their taxes are not being raised. Call it what you want; it’s a tax. Likewise, when GRU raises its rates another 3% as promised, its purpose is to insure a larger transfer to the general fund. It’s also a tax. And when traffic fines are raised and policing becomes more and more aggressive, it’s a tax. The city needs more and more money because it spends more and more money. Yet, some blinking incumbent will sit and tell you next year that he didn’t raise taxes. Don’t you believe it!

The real issue is, as usual, runaway spending. That is WHY they need to increase your cost of living. Fire service is a fundamental thing that your property taxes are supposed to be paying for! To charge you extra for this service is like going to Subway to buy the $5 foot long, and getting charged $6 at the register because there is a Meat Assessment!

At the same meeting, Commissioners voted 6-1 to issue $5.3Million in bonds to pay for their unpopular One Stop Homeless Center and Ironwood Golf Course and Money Pit. For the uninitiated, this means they borrowed the money and that you will be assessed, fined or taxed at a later date.

The Built-in Bailout

While perusing this year’s Gainesville City Budget’s summary document, I found an interesting fact. It is fairly plain language that even a window cleaner can understand. Therefore, I pass it along to you, the other citizens who are on the hook for the high cost of government. It’s a paragraph found near the top of page 10, and here is the important excerpt:

“Pension obligations are met primarily through three sources of funds. Employee contributions to the fund are set at a fixed percentage of pay. Investment returns on pension assets comprise a substantial portion of pension funding, and the balance of funding required comes from contributions from the employer. Therefore, poor investment return years require higher contributions from the employer to meet required funding levels.”

In case you are missing something here, we, the taxpayers, are the employers. The other important thing to notice is that you, the employer, are obligated to meet funding obligations when investments have a bad year. So, all of you who took a hit in 2008, losing about 40% of your retirement investments, have to bite the bullet to keep the city pension fund from failing to make money.

Keeping in mind that this is, after all, a defined benefits plan, we will not get into the details of whether such an expensively insured plan is mitigated with below average return on investment anyway. But it does indicate that the city should hire employees and create new departments only when the gravest need arises. There are not many companies that can survive not only an economic downturn, but having to insulate its employees from this effect with money it no longer has.

City employees who like this arrangement (and who wouldn’t?) should want to insure this arrangement’s long term viability by helping its employer to NOT incur deficits. But deficits are what we have, and that could be the case for years to come if we do not get some hard-times discipline.

Stay tuned to this blog as I visit other budgetary challenges that could be met with your money and your lack of opportunity.