Archived Story

Boughton sets example on levy issue

Published 10:32am Friday, October 28, 2011

Second Ward Council member Roger Boughton deserves a vote of thanks for his persistence in trying to pare the city’s tax levy increase back from the 13 percent now planned.

Boughton seems to be the only council member who does not see the double-digit increase as inevitable. At the council’s last work session, he proposed eliminating a $150,000 contingency fund from the city budget, a move that would have saved enough to take the levy increase down to single digits.

Getting to that single-digit mark would be a worthy goal and a real achievement. The Legislature, seeking to solve the state’s budget problem, eliminated a credit that has for many years offset local property taxes. The result is that most outstate cities will have to accept some level of tax levy increase.

That’s the hand that Austin was dealt and any complaints about the fact that taxes will increase should be forwarded to the nearest Republican state lawmaker, such as Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea. Or to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Being dealt a bad hand, however, does not absolve the council of responsibility for playing that hand. In government, unlike in poker, folding is not an option. And it seems only reasonable for taxpayers to ask that the council make every effort to pass as little of the state’s problem along as possible. That is best done by eliminating city expenses that don’t relate directly to services for residents.

This year, that is of particular importance because Austin area residents are being asked to authorize funds for a new school. That is a top-shelf need because delivering quality education is the best possible investment in Austin’s future. Education has proven, over and over again, to be the foundation for individual and group success.

While the schools and the city are separate entities, they’re joined at each taxpayer’s hip pocket.

So in the overall ranking of what taxpayers’ money should be spent on, a contingency fund is pretty far down the list. Actually, it’s at the bottom, right below paying gigantic dues to lobbying organizations — an expense that the council seems determined to keep in place.

Boughton’s proposal to zero out the city’s contingency fund was, unfortunately, dead on arrival. After a lengthy discussion (the summary in the official minutes runs more than 700 words), Boughton couldn’t even get a second for his motion. The gist of the long discussion was that the city needs a contingency fund because … well, because it might have a contingency.

That is, indeed, one way to look at it. The other way is that it would make more sense to let taxpayers keep the money in their own bank accounts and, if a contingency arises, budget and levy for it the following year. That would, of course, require the city to scramble for a short-term fix if an unexpected expense crops up. But in a multi-million dollar budget there is always a way to scrape up funds for an unexpected need.

The same sort of thinking should apply to the city’s $40,000-plus expenditure for membership in a lobbying organization. The council’s hope is that lobbyists will help the city retain some much-needed state aid. The key word there is “hope.” This year, that lobbying expenditure got us a tax law that led to a 13 percent levy increase. Doesn’t seem like the lobbying investment is paying off.

The reality is that a budget without contingencies and lobbying expenditures would save taxpayers some money and it would have zero impact on any service that taxpayers actually need or want.

Unfortunately, that is not the majority view on the city council. The prevailing viewpoint seems to be that passing along the state’s tax problem to local residents is the only option.

Here’s how the council’s minutes put it: “Council member McAlister stated apologizing for our tax increase is getting old. We have bitten the bullet and we need to stay right where we are at as we do not know what will happen at the state level…. Council member McAlister stated whatever the State has done to us, we need to account for that.”

That makes it sound like blaming the state is Plan A, which doesn’t suggest that we’re going to see much initiative from the council — or, at any rate, from most of the council. Roger Boughton, at least, is still pitching ideas that could make a difference.

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