Opinion: A budget delay might be best

Henderson Police Chief Glen Allen likes to say that budget season is the busiest eight months of the year — only a slight exaggeration about how long the budget process lasts in the city. Would it be the worst thing in the world if the process didn’t end tonight?

We should judge a budget based on the result, not how we get there, but as the City Council prepares to vote on a slew of ordinances related to the end of this fiscal year and the start of the next, the process is worth a recap.

The city’s department heads submitted their requests in the first half of March, with more than a quarter of the current fiscal year left. Fresh off the public forum on the stunning 2004 audit that revealed the city’s incredible vanishing fund balance and publicized that pesky $400,000 overrun in the Embassy Square budget, the council got to work on the new budget.

The Finance and Intergovernmental Relations Committee promptly held three-a-week meetings to review those requests with the department heads (there were more of them then), and the FAIR Committee moved on to address revenues (lots of impossible dreams of a bigger chunk of the money now flowing into county coffers) and held memorable, enlightening sessions with leaders of the Embassy Square Foundation and the H. Leslie Perry Memorial Library board of trustees.

All those hours of meetings — 20 or so — gave us hope that this year the budget City Manager Eric Williams submitted in late May would closely resemble the budget the council enacted in late June. That hope was in vain.

Instead, Williams presented a budget that even he didn’t like. As he said repeatedly, the only part he was proud of was the lack of layoffs.

We understand the difficulty of crafting a budget with a smaller tax base, despite rising demands for services and spending, but we remain confused by the budget Williams offered May 26. He included at least one worthy long-term change, the shift from backdoor to curbside garbage collection, but the council had made clear in early discussions that the idea wouldn’t fly this year. He proposed the elimination of the recycling program, again despite the clear desire of the council. He played some tricky games with drug-seizure money and Powell Bill funds to inflate the fund balance without addressing any structural reasons that the city’s fund balance has fallen so far.

And so the council spent the past month in constant FAIR meetings, often repeating the arguments made throughout the spring. The council also had to make a hasty decision about health insurance because the process of bidding out the policy was put off until the last possible moment.

We hate to sound like a broken record (kids, ask your parents what that means), but we can’t help comparing how the city and the county created their budgets.

County Manager Jerry Ayscue didn’t have an easier task before him — the minuscule growth in the Vance tax base was offset by the continuing boom in Medicaid expenses, which the city doesn’t have — but he delivered a budget that the Board of Commissioners could accept. The only significant change between what he proposed and what the county enacted was a decrease in the property tax increase from 3 cents to 2 cents per $100 valuation, an improvement made possible largely through a lower rate for worker’s comp insurance (a bidding process the staff, not the commissioners, handled.)

Meanwhile, as far as we can tell, the city’s new process of getting the council involved in the budget from the start, back in March, resulted in no change in what came out in May. That’s a disappointment. The council and city manager would deserve blame for their budget dysfunction, but we figure the countless hours of meetings are their own punishment.

Still, none of that procedural mess would matter if the budget it produced were a finely crafted balance of needs, desires, possibilities and realities. Instead, we don’t know what the budget looks like. More important, hours before being asked to enact the plan, the council doesn’t know what the budget looks like. Members won’t see what Williams has produced until tonight’s meeting.

That’s right: After all of the meetings, after all of the hours of work over more than three months, the council is being asked to enact a mystery document tonight. Actually, it’s a series of mystery documents: The City Council will receive two ordinances dealing with the 2005-06 budget, as well as several budget amendments for the current fiscal year and the long-awaited Embassy Square budget ordinance correction.

Given how many permutations of the budget have been bounced around the Municipal Building just since Williams presented his plan May 26, and given how that initial budget failed to reflect council desires, we don’t know how the council can even vote on the budget ordinances, let alone endorse them. But the new fiscal year starts Friday, and the council finds itself backed into a corner.

Frankly, it’s too late to alter what Williams offers before the new fiscal year, and, as Williams often says, the council can come back next month and start changing anything in the budget except the property tax rate. That’s part of the reason Allen talks about an eight-month budget process.

But we would like the council to use the one card it has left to play to voice its displeasure tonight: Don’t pass the budget on first reading. Unless the budget ordinances get a two-thirds majority — six votes if all eight council members are present — another meeting on another day will be necessary to pass the budget on a second reading, which requires a simple majority.

There’s time to hold an emergency 10-minute meeting later in the week to enact the budget, and what’s one more meeting after all the council has gone through with this budget? Therefore, we hope for a 5-3 vote in favor of the budget tonight — enough to keep it alive, not enough to make it law.

Lonnie Davis and Ranger Wilkerson will cast the final votes as the Ward 4 council members tonight. If y’all see this, please consider the message the council will send if it’s willing to enact budget ordinances minutes after seeing them for the first time. Cast a vote to give yourselves enough time to know what you’re doing.