Yesterday, shortly after I postedthat budget amendment memo in which eight council members called for a 4.91-cent tax hike
, I heard from countless Friends of Unfair Park who said, more or less: "Yeah, but what's to keep the city from spending that $40 million on thingsother
than parks, rec centers, libraries and streets?" In other words: Very few folks believe the money will be spent on those proposed restorations to services.
Which is why, late yesterday, I e-mailed Angela Hunt -- who, till yesterday, was generally regarded as the up-in-the-air swing vote on the council when it came to a tax hike -- and asked her: "How can people trust that the tax-hike dough will go toward restoring services mentioned in the memo?"
She just called with an answer. Which led to more questions. Then, more answers. It's all on the other side.
Update at 4:35 p.m.: Good. Ness. Just as I was posting this, Hunt was posting to her Web site a lengthy item titled "The Truth About the City Budget." Maybe it should have been titled "The Truth About Tom Leppert." Before you jump to our Q&A, maybe you ought to read it. Why? Oh, I dunno ...
The mayor attacked our proposal even before it was put forward. He disingenuously cautioned his supporters that "we must not start the habit of raising your taxes" -- surprising coming from someone who's never met a tax increase he didn't like or a pet project he could do without. But then it hit me. There are two Tom Lepperts: Candidate Leppert and Mayor Leppert.
Candidate Leppert pledges no new taxes. Taxes are for the the fiscally-irresponsible. Remember his famous campaign mailer back in 2007 with the ATM on the side of city hall, mocking the mayoral wannabes who would raise taxes? He looked us all square in the eye and pledged he'd never do that.
Until he got elected. Then the first thing Mayor Leppert did was raise your taxes. By over $65 million.
But that wasn't enough. He dug into your pockets again the following year to grab another $39 million.
Not surprisingly, people don't trust that City Hall will spent this $40 million wisely -- or on the things promised in yesterday's memo.
This is what we're gonna do. I talked with Mary Suhm about this this morning. I explained to her there's a critical need for transparency in this process -- and to provide taxpayers with confidence that their money will be spent where the city says it will be spent. So, every quarter we will post on the city's website exactly where the money is going for the various amendments we've proposed.
For example, if you have a line item for street maintenance, we'll list exactly what streets it's being spent on and what the balance is. If it's park maintenance, we'll show how many times the different parks have been mowed and how many times litter's been picked up and what it cost. With our rec centers and libraries, those restoration of services will be self-evident because the rec centers will be open, the libraries will be open, the swimming pools will be open. But for the things people can't see, we'll ensure it's crystal-clear and there's accountability.
Transparency's one thing. But how will the city be held accountable?
If we said we're going to spend X amount on street maintenance, we'll take what's in the budget currently, add it to what we're proposing to restore, take that figure and quarterly you'll see what it's being spent on and where it's going. Park mowing -- there's a figure currently in the budget, there's the amount we've added to it, so you take that new total figure and quarterly you'll see what that's being spent on. You'll be able to see that it's not being sucked out of there to go in some black hole That's what we're all concerned about -- making sure taxpayers dollars are being spent where we say they are. It's about creating a system of confidence.
In that case, the city could just go ahead and post all of its receipts ...
And I don't think that's a bad idea. I can talk with Mary about that and see if that can be done. But we're cutting staff everywhere. We don't have the same employees who can spend their time doing this, and this will take time to do. I can tell you right now we'll do it absolutely for the amendments. But once a year, at budget time, you see exactly what the figures are for every single service in the budget.
Is there enough staff to provide these quarterly updates on the restored services?
We will definitely do the budget amendments. I am committed to it. I can't support them without ensuring there's accountability."
It was long thought you were undecided about supporting a tax hike -- the so-called swing vote, for lack of a better phrase. When did you decide to support not only a hike, but damned near the max allowed?
Over the last month I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of residents, and one thing I noticed at town halls were a lot of new faces. You've been to these -- often we get the same folks from special-interest groups. I am not saying that in a pejorative sense. These are people who believe in libraries, cultural arts, seniors services. They're attached to these issues and passionately believe in them. But this year, in addition to those folks. we saw so many new faces who'd never been to a town hall meeting and had never talked to me before and weren't associated with special-interest groups. They said: "Please maintain our streets, open our rec centers, staff our libraries, maintain our parks." These were folks asking for the very basics. They aren't asking for the moon, for extravagant pet projects, but the fundamental basic services government provides, and if we can't do this, what are we here for?
Did you hear from the mayor?
I only know what he told the newspaper. But there's something missing in this, and I understand Leppert wants to spin this because that's what he does, but he's being disingenuous. We're lowering property axes. We'll get in less next year. We are leaner and doing more with less, and he wants to spin this as an enormous tax hike. He knows darned well we're reducing property taxes coming into this city, and it's just untrue and political points he's trying to score. I heard from people who were willing to pay more for what the city should provide them as taxpayers. We're still cutting employees, still cutting salaries, still having furlough days.
So now we'll have cleaner parks than we had last year. I am tired of seeing parks dirty. I am tired of going out of town and seeing nice, clean, well-kept parks and then coming back here to trash. I am tired of potholes. I am tired of driving on steets that wreck my tires. I hear that time and time again. Taxpayers are tired of it.