District 3 City Councilmember Justin Outling is attempting to provide some leadership on the City Council.
It’s not an easy task, but Outling has asked that the City Council get public input at the April 18 City Council meeting and discuss and vote on how it plans to pay for the $126 million in bonds passed by the voters on Nov. 8, 2016.
Outling made the point at the City Council meeting on April 4 that the City Council should decide how the bonds will be paid for before spending the money.
The discussion on bonds and raising taxes started in the council work session in the afternoon and continued at the regular televised meeting in the Council Chambers in the evening.
At the work session, Outling – proving that he has learned a lot about how things work in less than two years on the City Council – in talking about the proposed tax increase said, “Could we have a public vote on that as opposed to polling councilmembers?”
It’s much more difficult to vote for a tax increase on the record than it is to do it behind closed doors.
Councilmember Sharon Hightower said that she was in favor of a tax increase to get the projects she wanted in her district funded.
Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann said that she thought the people who voted for the bonds knew they were voting for a tax increase. A number of councilmembers disagreed.
Outling’s efforts to bring some planning to the bond process continued during a discussion at the regular council meeting on whether to spend $2 million in 2016 bond money on completing the Bryan Park soccer complex, something the council had promised to do before the bonds passed.
The city staff has a bond-spending program that includes spending $30 million in bond anticipation notes in the upcoming year, and the $2 million would be part of that $30 million. But if that $30 million in bond money is allocated, a property tax increase of about 2.5 cents will have to be made in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
It’s a decision the City Council should have made last year before the bonds were placed on the ballot, but last year at this time the councilmembers were too busy meeting secretly in small groups to avoid the open meetings law to decide just how much money they wanted to spend. At that time, the bond package ballooned up to over $200 million, then dropped to around $100 million before going back up close to $200 million again, and finally dropping back to $126 million.
The question Outling wants the council to formally decide – rather than letting matters take care of themselves – is whether to raise taxes in fiscal year 2018-2019 to pay for the bond expenditures in 2017-2018. He said it was unfair for bond projects to be “jockeying for position.” Outling said for example that the Downtown Greenway was important to him and that he thought it should be a priority, but other councilmembers might not agree.
It appears what the City Council was going to do was spend as much bond money as they wanted this year, an election year – in part because announcing projects is a popular move – and then wait until after the November election to discover what they all knew – that property taxes, already the highest in the state for a comparable city, would have to be raised.
From a political standpoint it’s advantageous to put that tax increase off until after the November election, where councilmembers will be elected to four-year terms. Voters historically have short memories. By the time the councilmembers would come up for reelection in 2021, the conventional wisdom is that the voters would have forgotten all about the tax increase in 2018.
Outling wants to have a discussion on how quickly the bond money will be spent, because bonds could be spent at a slower rate without raising taxes. It could also be spent at a faster rate without raising taxes, but that would require some fiscal discipline by this City Council, and that doesn’t appear likely to happen.
However, calls for fiscal discipline are coming, just from an unlikely source – City Councilmember Jamal Fox. At every meeting, Fox talks about putting the brakes on wanton spending. Fox keeps asking questions and getting promises of answers, but so far it hasn’t had much effect.
Councilmembers Mike Barber and Tony Wilkins often speak in favor of reducing spending. With the addition of Fox, it’s possible that five councilmembers could decide to implement some fiscal responsibility. In the case of the current City Council, that might simply mean not giving money to almost everyone who appears before the council with their hands out.
This City Council has spent money like it’s water, and because the tax rate is so high the City Council always has money to spend.
What Outling said he wants is a commitment from the City Council that – yes, we are going to start spending this bond money on these particular projects with the knowledge that next year we will have to raise taxes. Or using the method that he said he prefers – spending the bond money on selected high-priority projects at a slower rate and not raising taxes.
What Outling argued against is spending the bond money the way it was done on April 4, where a group with popular support, the soccer community, came and asked to be placed at the front of the line and the council, without considering the financial ramifications or the effect on other projects, did so because this council doesn’t like to say no.
Outling said that he was in favor of the soccer complex expansion but not in favor of spending the $2 million in bond money if this put the soccer fields in front of every other bond project being considered.
It took a while for some of his fellow councilmembers to understand that Outling was looking beyond the end of the meeting and trying to get the City Council to plan for next year.
During a break in the meeting, Outling said that if the majority of the City Council wanted to raise taxes so that the bond money could be spent faster, then that is what would happen.
But he said what he didn’t want to see happen was piecemealing things, where projects that had some backing got approved to the point that taxes would have to be raised to pay for them, or to the point that other projects that might be more critical for the city were delayed because the council didn’t want to raise taxes.
It is rare to see a member of this City Council try to plan and do things in a logical, well-thought-out fashion.
Outling made a motion toward the end of the meeting on April 4 to have public input and a discussion on how the bond money would be spent, considering that the spending recommended by city staff would result in a 2.5 cent tax increase. And to have a public vote on raising taxes to pay for the 2016 bonds.
If you don’t want your taxes to increase next year, the April 18 meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers would be a good meeting to attend.