Monday, September 22, 2008

Taxes: Everyone has and Opinion

Matt Kelly, one of the city council members, started a post over at his blog Question Everything. Eric Martin and I posted comments to the article, and Matt challenged us with the following questions (noted by 'q'). See my answers here, crossposted from Matt's comment section.

1q. How will small business complete the revitalization of Sophia Street? What improvements do you expect them to make? How will they cover the cost of those improvements? Who decides on what improvements to make?
1a) Improvements should be done with a bond, where the BID pays the debt service through the increased tax revenue. Immediately after improving the area, you would expect property values to increase. You would also expect improvements to drive additional business in the area. All prime areas for BIDs, or a Sophia overlay. Most cites pay for parking garages this way, with parking revenue and increased business tax revenue used to cover dept service.

2q. How does reducing funding to schools improve student performance?
2a) Funding for schools needs to be based on enrollment and services offered. What do you remember from school? I remember the teachers, which I consider the core service a school offers. In tight times, a diet light in construction and extras allows more emphasis on scholarly work. The school budget has not been my specialty, so I will openly admit to needing to brush up on this one.

3q. If you invest a dollar and get two dollars back is that a good thing? Do you want tourists to pay for our new court facility or City residents?
3a)I take it your 1 dollar investment for 2 in return is in reference to incentives for Kalahari. I agree with you that this is a good investment. It's NEW tax revenue, which will probably all go to building the new courthouse. Now lets talk courts - what do we really get for 60M? It is a Taj Mahal building? What do we need? Courts. Simple. Even if the building offers retail, doesn't that compete directly with other downtown business owners for rent? Where do you draw the line. I'd suggest we ask what we can get for 40M, how much better is 60M? But lets go even further, what are the yearly maintenance costs going to be for the courts and who's going to pay that? I've suggested before that we need a very efficient building, so that our long term base costs are reduced. Council has not published any options for the courts, so stop using it as a scare tactic. Right now it could be 40M, it could be 80M for all we know. Maybe initially we need to consider using the existing parking garage to reduce our upfront costs. (Did I say I was perfectly OK with incentivizing other businesses to create NEW revenue.)

4q. If I contract out a job to a firm that has to pay competitive wages to their employees, provide benefits, and make a profit--how much money do we save? Like business should we charge for the actual cost for services?
4a)I didn't suggest uping service charges, I suggest combining services to reduce our biggest cost that we have control over - manpower. I think the hiring freeze was a good start. Now as attrition continues, we need to think hard about how to become more productive. Like business, we absolutely should be looking at our productivity numbers. By my survey of a few budget items, looking at overhead rates compared to money expended on services, we're less productive this year than last.

5q. If the people continue to contribute to erosion of the riverbank, cut down trees, and leave large amounts of trash how long will it be before people will stop coming?
5a) So bring on the conservation ordinances. Let talk more than just the river resource, lets talk light pollution, lets talk runoff from pavement (which is required by the current ordinance for all parking). The saving of 2000+ acres was a great thing. It is great that the public owns this area. Whatever design is created for the riverfront, should consider flooding and erosion resistant landscaping.

6q. What specific projects or programs has the City paid for that you object to?
6a) Hasn't happened yet, but I object to spending 50k to remove 1200 Prince Edward. Like I stated earlier, up until now, I've pretty much supported the plans of council. It's just time to cut back, tighten the belts, combine departments where needed. Remove the stovepipes, and stop duplicating services.

7q. True or False. The City reduced its operating budget last year?
7a)True - the city reduced spending this year, and yet still had to borrow from the reserve.

8q. True or False. Congested roads, and infrastructure in disrepair are good for economic development?
8a)Name me a truly congested road inside the city? Coming from northern va, and the Hampton roads area, and you can't compare. Rt3 between Rt1 and Carl D Silver parkway is probably the best example. So what plans are there? Show me a plan that can get more throughput with what exists - lets talk to VDOT about retiming the lights, which they already have an employee to do. Lets talk about Fall Hill, which will be paid for with transportation money - what speed did you drive the last time you went up Fall Hill? If you're honest, you will probably find it was close to the speed limit. We need sidewalks in the new design, we want bike lanes/paths, what we don't need are more stoplights breaking up that throughput. There are designs out there that would allow intersections at each residential neighborhood, and since they don't require the utility work for a dozen stoplights, it should be cheaper. Do more with less, that's all I ask. I would say not having buried utilities does more for economic development in the city. Now I know you're interested in regional solutions to transport congestion, and there we should work with the state to direct transport funds to good efficient designs.BTW - this is not a true or false problem. To present it as such is deceiving the public. It's an analysis of alternatives. Apply a little six sigma to 1st uncover the true problems, create a measurement if needed, then design and implement the correct solution. Measure again to see if you solved the problem. Council is trying to make it too black and white. Apply a little engineering effort to understand the issues first.

9q. Would it be more efficient for you to drive out to Massaponax and come back to City Hall to get your car registered? Do you understand that the Commissioner of the Revenue and Treasurer are State Constitutional Officers?
9a) No other locality that I've ever lived in has had 2 windows for commissioner of revenue and treasurers office. They are two positions in the back office, it doesn't mean there can't be one front person that collects taxes and issues decals. Heck, Greene county barely had one glass window to go to. And yes, I like the DMV express - and I believe that function is paid for by revenue from their cut of transactions. Talking with the attendant though, there are overhead costs for this such as nightly mailing in the days forms. Is this self supporting? Many people don't even know it's there, I tell everyone I know.

10q. Can you give a specific example of how you would reduce expenditures without reducing services?
a)Combine the windows for comm of revenue and treasurers office.
b)Ditch the city decal from the revenue/treasures office altogether, move that function to the police department with the other city resident decals.
c)look for more partnerships such as the master gardeners and parks
d)ditch the 100% cotton paper used in city offices for official correspondence (it's minor, I know, but it means more to me to get a 100% recycled paper at 25% the cost)
e)move the city to leasing computer equipment, equalizing expenses over 3 years rather than having spikes in spending, making it easier to plan
f)question HVAC replacement $1.3M, can any of this be moved out 1yr, 2yrs? With the new window film on the executive center, shouldn't the AC needs be reduced (BTW-good move in my opinion)?
g)question 1.1M for VCR trail. I know a majority of this is grant money, but what isn't? City crews, planning department overhead? What's the true cost. I want the VCR trail, but in a critical budget year, will it hurt to delay? What if I put it in the same black/white statement - VCR trail or Historic Sidewalks around the new hotel downtown to draw return tourists?
h)with all the sewer work, how about an ordinance to allow more construction up, and limit coverage to assist in runoff? The storm sewers can barely (can not) handle the runoff we have now. Lock these hand in hand.
i)Look at the trash and recycling fees, are they covering costs? How about investing in larger trash cans and going to one pickup a week?
-These are just a few I've spoken about before, plus a quick look at the CIP. I'm sure there are more. If you cut external agencies, please please please provide them a method to earn that money back easily, open up Finally Fridays to an every Friday event manned by volunteers, with the end of year profit going back to those organizations.

Aq) Local government is not subject to such forces as competition and inflation/cost of living?
Aa)Inflation affects gov't, and in previous years also impacted the tax revenue. This year is bad, because inflation is driving up prices while tax revenue is down. Many of the constituents in this city are personally affected in a similar way, so to say that justifies raising taxes is cruel and unusual punishment.

Bq) Government employees are on average paid more than their counterparts in the private sector?
Ba)Most recent polls say that gov't workers and professional counterparts are close to equal. This is mostly due to the bust of the internet bubble years ago. With the recent private layoffs, the gov't security has been an equalizer. Also, we have to stop thinking that we're competing with Prince William or Fairfax. The equalizing force of gas prices is making it more appealing to work close to home, not to mention the extra time to spend with friends and family. You guys are doing a great job trying to draw more opportunities here local. You heard me say it the other night, we are the center of a nice metro area, lets use that to our advantage. Some things have worked, some we lost, don't stop trying.

Cq) Unlike private sector employees, Government employees are all lazy and look for ways to waste money?
Ca)haha - good one. Council needs to make the rules so that they can be efficient, structure has a lot to do with efficiency.

Dq) If government operated like the private sector all waste and inefficiency would come to an end?
Da)I think that's why you're seeing public-private partnerships for things like amphitheaters, parking garages, and even whole redevelopment areas. You get the best in gov't financing, contracting, and private implementation, attention to details and budget/cost/benefit. You have to admit that private industry can accomplish things that government cannot, because they have an incentive.

Eq) We do not have tax relief programs to help people on fixed incomes?
Ea)This couldn't have been directed at my post. Raising real estate taxes usually hurts the people on fixed incomes first.

Thanks Matt! For providing a platform for all of us, and for listening to our stances.Wow that was a long answer.

Might create more questions.

FROM the followup post to correct some minor issues:
Oh - it was to answer #4 and #5, and I forgot to give true/false's on the last few. TRUE We offer tax relief for fixed income over a certain age right? How about low income? How about tax relief for hardship cases? You know, lower taxes helps these, but then when do you have to cut something like the homeless shelter, which really hurts.

I'll repeat something I said the other night - it's a yardstick. The answer lays somewhere between the start and the end, but I doubt if it's really at either end, and I really hope it's closer to the smallest raise possible. I also favor consumption taxes, which are voluntary based on wants of those paying for the product/service.
I just want to be sure we're lean. Not convinced we're there yet.
Oh - and I think the garage should offer a 10-pack of prepaid $4 tickets. The city would collect money upfront for services not yet rendered. Also, seems that $4 is low for a daily rate (maybe we need daily, 10-pack and monthly rates), and why isn't this a prime special event parking (at $5 or more). Think of an every friday's event!!!If the garage covered it's own debt service, that would free up some funds from the 2% gas tax to cover street work, burying utilities, concrete/pavement rehab, etc.

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