Wednesday, July 1, 2009

By request: tax increase

Some readers have asked about my take on the city's property tax increase. So I'll try and get some thoughts on paper, so to speak.

For whatever reason, I don't always get worked up by the big ticket items. For example, I don't blog too often about the BeltLine specifically - usually I just reference it when making another point about transportation or greenspace. There have been any number of big stories lately that I haven't written about. The tax increase kind of falls into that category

Sometimes, like with the Georgia Tech robberies, I just don't know what to say. I don't think there is a lot more to add. It reinforces my point that 'more cops on the street' isn't really a solution to crime - police are a naturally reactive force, and and crimes can still happen even when cops are specifically targeting an area for more patrols. The odds that a patrol intervenes on a crime in progress are so low, we can't look on this as a solution. Mostly, though, my reaction to these robberies has been to keep my mouth shut and let the situation play itself out before saying too much.

So, the tax increases. It seems there are two basic opinions to have on the issue:
  • The city has laid people off, eliminated positions, and cut some services. They mayor has said we are 'cutting into the bone'. There really isn't any alternative to a tax increase. It sucks, but it needs to be done.
  • The city has been mismanaged for years, there HAS to be fat that can be cut, we should go through the budget and "find the money". We are in a recession, and people can't afford any more money.
Some folks try to split the difference and suggest a 1 mil, rather than a 3 mil, increase is all that is truly necessary, and that the rest can be "found". I do think that Ceasar Mitchell deserves some amount of credit for voting in favor of a property tax increase while running for a city wide post. His opponent, Clair Muller, voted against it. I don't think voting against it is necessarily cowardice or opportunism, although what one decides to do afterwards might be.

On a certain level, I'd like to take the politics out of it. I mean, it is quite fun to speculate on how various candidates' votes and positions will shake out down the road. There has been plenty of that elsewhere, but all I'll say is that especially in races like this raising taxes can be seen as the mature and responsible choice. It certainly worked for Mark Warner in Virginia. It isn't always as clear cut as some think.

Another reason I haven't written about it before now is that, well, I don't know what to cut from the budget. I haven't had the chance to dig through all the city's budget documents, and I'm not sure that I'd come to any solid conclusions if I did. I simply don't know enough about what is truly essential to the city's operations. So the Mayor has budgeted $14,000 in business travel for next year. I have NO IDEA if that is exhorbent or what.

I wouldn't know where to begin to cut the budget in order to fill the budget gap. Finding $56 million by trimming things like that line item by say, about 30% to about 10,000 saves a whopping 4,000. Is there enough stuff in the budget like that to get to $56 million? The gap is about 10% of the entire budget. That is a lot to just cut. Normally you'll see government ask departments to cut 3%-5% of their budget in a year, not 10% across the board.

Sure, I'd like to see the council really dig through the budget and make some difficult cuts. I mean, who wouldn't like to hear the city say, "hey, we took another look, and we can pay for all the police we want without having to raise taxes". Personally, I think that is a much longer term solution - the city probably needs to get better at doing its daily business, and more and more I don't think simply cutting budgets is a magical way to get to "good government".

Good government requires all the things good business does - including quality management, a strong organizational culture, a consistent attention to improving performance. You can't just cut a department's budget, say, "well, recessions suck, we all have to get by," expect them to suck it up, and then act like you've sorted out all the kinks. I think a lot more focus could get spent on HOW the city delivers various services (including internally), and trying to improve people's jobs. Again, I don't know enough about how the city operates, so I could be talking straight out of my ass here, but too much of politics gets focused on simply the budget and magically "cutting the fat".

In the short term, property tax increases suck. I don't think its the end of the world, though, and I think that is one reason you haven't seen the kind of revolt that happened in Gwinnett County. Atlanta residents know it isn't an easy decision, and they know there aren't many alternatives at the moment.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.