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City Council, November 23

Budget for 2011 balanced close to last year’s level
Are some districts being short changed?

Marc Knapp

A draft of the 2011 budget was given to Council members yesterday. They will vote on it at the next Council meeting. There were no surprises as Council had been briefed on the broad terms at the last Council meeting. A detailed report is now available on the City web site. As we did in previous years, we will provide a fuller analysis of the budget and post it for viewers to scrutinize.

As the Mayor and others have said, the 2011 budget preparation was tough. The main sources or revenue for the City were expected to be flat or down. The City projected flat property taxes, and declines of 9.5% and 20.8% respectively in revenues from Business License and Permit fees. As well, there were pressing or unavoidable increases in costs relating to Police and Fire departments, and equipment purchases. The City also decided to eliminate staff furloughs introduced in 2010, a move estimated to boost costs by $1.3 million.

To balance the budget, the Mayor and CEO Bedard in last night’s Budget Workshop noted that all spending was scrutinized. The cost savings achieved were spread throughout all City departments. In consequence, the 2011 draft budget spending was $145 .96 million, down 0.44% from the 2010 budget figure. Importantly for City residents, no increase in property taxes was proposed.

Is the 2011 budget reasonable? We think so. The assumptions of revenue are certainly not optimistic and there seems little likelihood or a surge in costs. But we still fear for the course of the economy and note the sluggishness of the private sector. We think that there may be the need for further austerity in 2012.

Per capita spending - what is fair and how can it be determined?
Much of last night’s meeting was taken up with spending issues. It wasn’t planned that way. It was the drift of questions on the budget, and speakers in Citizens Participation. And by coincidence, the issues raised by the citizens were a natural flow from the former.

It started with Council member Gallant asking for a breakdown of salaries and costs for those folk that had left the employ of the City’s Fire and Police Departments, and for the replacements. He needed this information to better assess the 2011 budget figures. Council member Gregorie followed this with a request for a breakdown of revenues and spending on the basis of Council districts. He wanted this to better answer questions from constituents who feared their district was not getting its fair share of City spending. Council member Mallard, who is quick to join any fray, supported the Council member’s request and added that the Peninsula was getting the lion’s share of spending and districts like West Ashley were missing out.

We give full marks to the Mayor who retained a straight face through all of this and held back a “you have to be joking” exclamation. He did say that to obtain the information that Council member Gregorie requested would be difficult. It was primarily a question of allocation – of both revenues and expenditures. There would need to be cooperation with the County, who collects all property taxes but does not split them on the basis of voting districts. And then how did you allocate revenues, business license fees or property tax - for a particular business which may be active in the whole of the City but has only one place of business? And the same sort of thing applied to allocation of expenses. Police and fire fighters serve the whole city and not just voting districts.

The Mayor has a point. An assessment made in terms of the allocation of revenues and costs would require many assumptions, perhaps enough to make any conclusion suspect.

But we would go further. If the purpose of the data gathering is to find out whether some districts are being short changed (defined as “spending per capita is less that revenue per capita”) the undertaking should not be undertaken. In terms of revenue collection, the greatest concentration of valuable properties and business is Downtown and Daniel Island (District 1). On a per capita basis, we would bet that Downtown/Daniel Island residents and businesses contribute more revenue that any other district. And on that basis, higher City spending in these areas relative to others would be understandable, and “fair’.

But maybe Council member Gregorie defines “fair” as having similar capita spending in all districts, regardless of the revenue derived from each district. In this case, there would be no point in making an effort to split revenue amongst districts.

Personally, we think the requests made by Council members Gregorie and Mallard are time wasting. Certainly we think analyzing capital or construction spending by districts is worthwhile and justified. But splitting the costs for police, fire and sanitation on a district basis is daunting and considering the likely many assumptions, not very meaningful.

Johns Island residents protest over neglect of park and law enforcement
The requests from Council members and the implication that some districts were being shortchanged plowed the ground for comments and pleas/demands from some Johns Island residents. They gathered and demanded action in relation to the Johns Island Park of the City and more active law enforcement in the park and surrounding area. There was drug dealing and crack houses in the area, and police were not doing enough. Crime was bad!

Johns Island Park amounts to about 30 acres and abuts the Dunmovin Subdivision near Brownsville Road and reasonably close to Angel Oak. Residents claimed that the park had been badly neglected by the City and that the Mayor had promised restrooms, a gym and other facilities in 1999 and had conspicuously failed to deliver. One speaker told the Mayor that he would not vote for him at the next election while another speaker chided Council ember Mallard, who represents the area and questioned why he had done nothing to help the district.

Both the Mayor and Council member Mallard looked uncomfortable and the Council member confessed to tardiness and apologized. He promised action. The Mayor also was sympathetic and made soothing sounds, but claimed that whatever was said in 1999 was recognition of the need and master plan. There was no time commitment made and the timing depended on budgetary conditions. He also noted that the City controlled only 17% of Johns Island with the County controlling most of the balance.

Not all Council members spoke on the issue of the Johns Island. But those that did were very sympathetic to the pleas of the residents. Despite the present tough times, we expect that after last night’s showing, the City will move to address the woes of the park and Dunmovin residents. And if it doesn’t, we expect to see the residents again, voluble and strident!

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