An Analysis and History of the Tallahassee Budget Debate

After a contentious budget debate in 2015, when the city manager proposed a budget increase, which would require a  27% tax hike in the city portion of the total property tax bill, Budget Hawks and many others vigorously opposed the increase.  Ultimately, the city commission decreased the increase to a half a mil or 13% increase.cropped-cropped-homepage11.jpg

Most agreed that, at a minimum, the city’s budget process was extremely flawed. More transparency and  greater citizens’ input were promised by commissioners.

Budget Hawks was cautiously optimistic that the city commission would facilitate a vigorous fact based discussion between opponents of the tax hike and with staff and the commission over the upcoming 2016-2017 budget.

BH knew that if an open debate about how spending could be reduced, it would become clear that the commission could and should roll back the 2015 tax hike.

After representatives of the Citizens for Responsible Spending met several times with the city manager and staff earlier this year to ask that as the staff develops the new budget, the manager, would direct staff to develop an alternative budget for the commission that would reflect a tax rollback of a half mill tax that would allow the commission, if so inclined, to roll back the tax hike.

The manager, who was gracious with his time, finally conceded to the CRS representatives that a roll back was not going to happen. They took his remark to be a political response, a response that represented the view his employers, the city commissioners.  No actual budgetary reasons were given.

This response is representative of the attitude that has been evident from staff and commission from last year and now continuing into this year’s discussions. It seems that the decision that there will be no attempt to try to find sufficient reductions in spending to allow a tax cut.

Well reasoned and pertinent questions and budget cutting proposals made by the citizen groups Budget Hawks and CRS have been largely ignored.

Budget Hawks and CRS members are made up of members who have excelled in the private and public sector including a former mayor, a previous head of Tallahassee utilities, a bank trust officer and former chamber president, the head of Florida Tax Watch, one of the leaders of the Florida Tea Party, and a former chair of the executive committee of the Florida Democratic Party, and sucessful business people. Two distinguished FSU professors, Dr. Shawn Kantor-Hilton Economics professor, and Dr. Sam Staley of the Devoe Moore Center (see corresponding article), have both opined on city spending practices.  Additionally, earlier work was done by the research firm led by Dr. Phillip Downs in his 2013 survey of Tallahassee Voices on a 2013 proposed tax increase (see corresponding article).

At the first budget workshop of this year, city staff seemed to confirm by their actions that the decision had already been made that staff and a majority of the commission  would not be committed to a major effort to cut spending to allow for a  tax decrease.

In the staff report to the commission, the message supported the position that the staff had already taken actions that had saved millions of dollars.  Staff’s implied that electric rates have fallen since 2008 because of actions taken by staff, without giving some credit to the 2008 collapse of the natural gas prices. Staff also presented a subjective peer city comparison that alleged that Tallahassee had the next to lowest municipal costs of any of the city picked peer cities. Staff reported that the cities were chosen based on difficult-to-argue-with characteristics such as “sense of community and place.”

BH understands that staff should promote their accomplishments, which I am sure are significant, but offering a  peer city comparison that appears to be subjective in its analysis and appears to convey an unconvincing conclusion, it leads the public to question the objectivity of the report.

Budget Hawks feels compelled to challenge the staff’s peer city comparison with peer city comparison’s of its own that paints a much different picture from the staff’s report. For example, when compared to medium to large cities in Florida that all own their own electric utilities, Tallahassee is second to highest in per capital revenues (taxes, fees, etc.) based on total revenues taken in from its taxpayers. A similar analysis by BH shows than when the cities chosen by the city staff are compared by per capita expenditure, Tallahassee again ranks near the top in spending and taxes.

If staff’s assertions were left unchallenged, the false foundation would be laid that would make the political environment much more difficult in which to gain support to roll back the tax hike.

BH does not desire to be in a struggle with staff over which peer city chart is more accurate.

City commissioners should  redirect debate to a more fact based budget discussion by becoming more in engaged in the process. Many emails to commissioners from Budget Hawks asking pertinent budget questions go unanswered and unacknowledged. After presentations from Budget Hawks and CRS at workshops and commission meetings, there were almost no follow up discussion or questions from commissioners.

This is not to say that all commissioners are always unresponsive or always unengaged on the issue. Commissioner Scott Maddox stood alone in fighting the tax hike from start to finish. Commissioner Richardson has been open to hearing opposing views.

While any effort by commissioners to listen to constituents is appreciated, one would think that since BH and CRS members are the only citizens who show up at the public budget meetings, commissioners would, at least, want to know more about opposition positions. But there has been minimal curiosity over BH questions and suggestions.

It appears that the city is determined to make the following arguments going forward:

  • We should limit budget discussions to the general fund where police and safety expenditures can be highlighted and our lower ad valorem rate can be segregated from our fourth highest in the per capita spending on fire service fees, which is a dedicated special fund revenue for the fire department, that brings in over $30 million dollars, almost the same as the ad valorem tax.
  • That by trumpeting “transparency” and “more public input”,  showing subjective claims and charts, and providing a citizens’ survey designed to show how contented tax payers are based on their limited knowledge of the budget process, the city will win the public relations battle.

Only an aggressive effort by taxpayers that is fully reported on by a free press will insure that a fact based and less political budget debate will take place.

Russell Price
Budget Hawks

May 3, 2016