Like Frankenstein’s monster lightening-bolted to life, this year’s budget process took it’s first unwholesome breath at the last council meeting in January (Jan. 30) with a discussion of budget priorities. This annual discussion is largely for the city manager’s sake. She’s the one who will be writing the budget. So, every year she asks the council to put its wish-list in order. She’ll refer to the wish-list as she crafts the budget, but it is only one of many pieces. The budget process will proceed into the spring.
The big, hairy-scary unknown piece, as always, is how much revenue the state will withhold or restore to municipalities THIS year. Last year was good, the previous year was a nightmare. The city had to lay off employees.
A lot of people don’t know how the city budget process works. Your Gilbert will explain.
The city has a professional city manager. It’s the city manager’s job to craft the yearly budget. The theory is that this will be done more efficiently, wisely, and fairly be a professional than by a bunch of amateur elected officials with wacky agendas. Not that we have any of those around here.
The council doesn’t get involved in the nitty-gritty of the budget. They give the city manager a rough sketch of what they want to accomplish, and she fills in the details/. If the sketch is too ambitious or unrealistic she does some erasing and re-drawing.
Against the grain
In the budget discussion Seth Grimes set himself apart, saying he does not support hiring a Sustaininator (Sustainability Co-ordinator). He said the city can reduce its carbon footprint in other ways. He was the only one who voiced this opinion. The two other new council members Tim Male and Kay Daniels-Cohen were quick to defend the planned hire (or contract, as is more likely the case). Daniels-Cohen said she was determined “to see something happen in my lifetime” to address the city’s environmental sustainability issues.
Grimes also went against the grain when it comes to bonds. He opposes the city taking on low-interest loan bonds to fund “capitol” projects. Capitol projects are building and infrastructure renovations. He said he prefers to build up reserves (the equivelent of a savings account) and use that money as needed. Councilmember Fred Schultz explained the conventional wisdom – loan interest rates are at an historical low. “This is the time we should be borrowing,” he said. Construction costs will rise in the future, making it cheaper to take out a loan now than use cash reserves later.
Councilmember Tim Male went against the police chief’s request for an additional staffmember. The chief pointed out that the council removed a position a couple of years ago, and he would like to have a staff member working on emergency preparedness. Male said he didn’t support the request because he’s heard that city crime is falling, staff retention is good, and “you could fill up _everyone’s_ time with emergency preparedness meetings.” His priority, he said, was infrastructure repair.
Feb. 6th, during a discussion of the city’s tree canopy and how to increase it, Councilmember Fred Schultz had burst of creative brainstorming – unusual to see at a city council meeting. Some of the ideas he tossed out in rapid succession were: giving city trees individual names to endear people to them (he cited the legendary Roscoe the Rooster), having a “baccanal” tree festival, or starting a Johnny Appleseed Club (“like the John Birch Society,” he joked). His object is to raise the awareness, appreciation, and proliferation of trees around the city. “I’m going to be the passionate one on this,” he said.
Tim Male continued working cross-grain at the same meeting. He firmly rejected two proposed resolutions, one calling for the reverse of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the other in support of the Maryland Governor’s state gasoline tax increase. Male said there was “no value” in the city passing the resolutions. In the first place the Citizens United case was not a city issue. Secondly, Takoma Park supporting a liberal cause would not be a surprise, nor would it carry any weight with the legislature, he said [as a happy tear rolled down Your Gilbert's gin-stained cheek]. If the city is to make a progressive stand, he said, let it be for something “hard to do.” The city’s rent control policy, for instance, comes at a price that residents are willing to pay for the sake of principle.
Seth Grimes also failed to jerk his liberal knee for the resolution against the Citizens United decision. He didn’t see it as a city issue, either, and said constituent concerns should be brought up with elected officials in the appropriate jjurisdiction.
The rest of the council seemed a bit shocked. Councilmember Reuben Snipper said there was value in taking a stand on issues that effect or concern city residents. Snipper said “Our absence will be noted” if the city doesn’t join the list of supporters.
Fred Schultz said Citizens United could effect constituents – outlining a fictional scenario in which a corporation located in the city might effect local politics with vast amounts of money. He said the city “has a role to play” by showing the state legislature it supports the gasoline tax. Kay Daniels-Cohen supported the gasoline tax, but was concerned that the revenues raised might not go into transportation, where it is sorely needed. She cited the shabby condition of many city roads. She was incensed by the Citizens United decision, she said, and was glad for the opportunity to show it.
Mayor Bruce Williams said it would be to the city’s advantage to show support for the governor’s gasoline tax, “but we’re not a cheap date.” He wants the city use its support as a bargaining chip in exchange for the restoration of state highway user tax revenues (which are supposed to go to the city, but have been appropriated by the revenue-strapped state legislature). He added language to the resolution to that effect.
The council voted for the resolution supporting the gasoline tax 6-1 (Male voting nay), and it voted for the resolution against the Citizen United decision 5-2 (Male and Grimes voting nay).
As the council discussed applications for “large” city grants. Councilmember Male joked that he was being a curmudgeon that evening. He tried to blame the chair he was sitting in. Fred Schultz admitted it was his former chair, so his curmudgeonly character may indeed have rubbed on onto the chair.
Male was dubious of many of the nine applications. The rest of the council was pretty steely-eyed, too. The requests ranged from $4000 from the Washington Adventist University to $30,000 from the Old Takoma Business Association (OTBA). The council was hard on many of the applicants, particularly Male. At one point Mayor Williams called on him jokingly as “Councilmember Curmudgeon.” The council didn’t vote on them, they just gave indications of their support, or lack of it, to the city manager, who will pare down or eliminate the grant requests as appropriate in the final budget.