Keene Winters shows his Grover Norquist roots

This from the August 1 edition of the Wausau Daily Herald under the headline:

Council member asks to cut property taxes —

“A Wausau City Council member is introducing a proposal to cut property taxes by 1 percent in 2013.

“Council member Keene Winters said he would cut taxes by taking advantage of annual turnover among city staff members that typically leaves Wausau with about $700,000 in budgetary wiggle room.”

Who could argue with that? Well, I can – and it isn’t because I love property taxes. The former local coordinator of the Grover Norquist-inspired Center Right Coalition, Keene Winters, has about four months in office under his belt and  hasn’t yet had the opportunity to work on a city budget. I’ve worked on a number of them and I believe that Winters is incorrect in asserting that the city now budgets “as if every city staff position, from street-sweeper to mayor, is filled 100 percent of the time.” It doesn’t. The city budget simply recognizes the impact of vacancies in a different fashion than what he is proposing.

Each year, the city applies a portion of its fund balance as a revenue source in the budget. This year, that amount was approximately $1.38 million dollars. Position vacancies and other savings are anticipated and they accumulate throughout the year. With a little luck and some good management, the city is hopefully able to avoid the need to actually deplete its general fund balance by the general fund contribution amount that was applied to balance the budget on the front end.

But by consuming the anticipated savings from vacant positions upfront instead, Winters’ proposal virtually ensures that the city will actually have to take a chunk of money out of its reserve fund to both pay its current bills and to hand money over to taxpayers in the form of a teeny tax cut. It’s like giving yourself a raise by taking it out of your savings account. Eventually, the string runs out with that kind of budgeting and your financial position is diminished. It could result in higher future costs of borrowing as the negative trend is established and the general fund shrinks.

Something else to consider is that Winters is a member of the Finance Committee and so he could easily have brought up his idea in the course of the budget discussions there. He also could have waited until there was far more complete information. For example, on August 15, the state will put out the valuation numbers that will be critical indicator of what kind of tax base the City of Wausau is likely to have to work with over the next few years. Preliminary figures already indicate that the city may be looking at a four percent drop in equalized value and barely more than six tenths of one percent in net new construction. Those realities are going to be a problem going forward until trends reverse, even without the one percent tax cut that Winters wants to put on the table.

But instead of waiting for some of the most basic information to be available or perhaps even until he himself had time to adequately understand the issue that he was talking about, Winters cranked out a lengthy press release talking about things like job creators and the unemployment rate. He then brought his proposal up in a meeting of the full council, where it was sent to the Finance Committee by a unanimous vote. Translation: This is something that the Finance Committee can consider later – not something that the full council should be voting upon now. And that was the correct call, even — and maybe even especially — if it never comes up again.

For Winters, it may have seemed like a nice publicity stunt, but given today’s realities of caps, levy limits and falling property values, a measure like the one he is suggesting can eventually create a very difficult position to recover from.  It’s a reckless path to go down to save the owner of a $100,000 home around 70 cents a month. It’s also bad practice to be bandying around talk about tax cuts that may not be a good idea to deliver on, once all things can be considered. Winters is setting people up to make a no-increase budget look like some kind of failure. But when your ideological roots have been soaking in Grover Norquist-inspired dogma for long enough, you can begin to believe that throwing random, ill-conceived pre-conditions into the budget mix before understanding all of the factors in play is a good idea.


UPDATE: Finance Committee votes down budget proposal 3-2; sending it back to council:|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

UPDATE: City Council votes down budget proposal 10-1:

CODDLING KEENE: The Wausau Daily Herald takes exception to the chilly reception for Keene Winters’ proposal:|newswell|text|WDH-Opinion|s


3 Responses to “Keene Winters shows his Grover Norquist roots”

  1. Last fall, I applied for a job as a budget analyst for Oklahoma City. I made it through the first two rounds of testing and the first two interviews and I was one of three people who made the final cut with an in depth interview withing the OKC budget office.

    One of the things that helped me get that far is that I am, by nature, a numbers person. Every year I spend quality time with the muncipal budgets that affect me the most (City of Wausau, Town of Wausau, Schofield, and Weston). If I choose to speak at the public hearing on the budget (which is a useless exercise, but that is a different topic all together), I try to do so from a fairly educated point of view.

    In preparation for my two interviews with OKC, I spent weeks going over their nearly 1,000 page budget document. I wanted to understand how they did their budget, how their TIF’s worked versus ours, and how they established the budget since it was funded by sales tax, something a lot more volitile than property taxes.

    In the end, I did not make the final cut to get the job offer (I might have been two prepared, a budget analyst is an entry level position and it was pretty clear that I had a better handle on things than my eventual supervisors did.)

    How does that tie in here… well you said it yourself, Keene has only been on the job for a few months and this is his first time through the City of Wausau budget process. I don’t know if he has gone through the 100+ pages of the Wausau budget. Even if he has, finance committee meeting minutes on the budget are abridged at best, and private meetings with staff in the Finance Office don’t have official minutes. It is nearly impossible for a political novice to understand all of the hows and whys.

    I was at that Committee of the Whole meeting where the idea of budgeting for less than full staffing was presented. Remembering now that I am a fairly fiscally conservative person myself, I instantly didn’t like it. We can’t balance the budget using accounting tricks, and that is all this basically was. We would basically be punishing departments if they ended up not having turn over.

    Even though I instantly thought it was a bad idea, it was an idea. One of the nice things about having some new faces on the city council is we get new ideas, new visions, new ways of looking at things. It is very hard to get people who have been on the council for years who are working with staff that have been there longer to try new ways of looking at things… doing things “because that’s how they have always been done” becomes the status quo, and is completely unacceptable to me.

    Should this idea have been addressed at finance versus the committee of the whole… it probably should have. But we both known how city committees can table ideas they don’t like (cough cough … Kaiser amendment to 400 block funding … cough cough) and kill them.

    Although I instantly didn’t like Keene’s idea, it was an idea. I do NOT want us to discourage our city leaders from coming up with new ideas. We have committees and staff and the full council to help ensure that if the idea is really bad, it doesn’t get very far. But to discourage new ideas is not wise.

    And, based on the fact that they city does in a way budget for staffing shortages by the fund transfer you talked about, maybe the idea wasn’t that bad afterall, and Wausau already does what Keene suggested, just in a way that isn’t clear to someone who up until a few months ago was on the outside looking in.

  2. Thanks for the input. As you may know, Keene Winters was a budget analyst with the state for a time. Of course, the state doesn’t have a reserve fund, in the sense that the city does.

  3. I too would welcome new ideas, but this one is an old one, unfortunately, and yes Dr. Rent, one that is fundamentally dishonest.

    The “idea” is this: we will cut taxes, but do so in a way that results in no cuts in services or programs. Sounds great — eliminate some “waste, fraud and abuse” and magically, we get something for nothing — same services and lower taxes! But really what it means is that someone is going to send out a press release crowing about lowering taxes, but a couple of years from now when services have to be cut because the “city is broke” the authors of the plan just shrug their shoulders.

    If Mr. Winters (or anyone else) wants to cut taxes, please let him tell us what services he would cut to achieve that. If people agree he gets re-elected. If not, so be it. But he knows very well that political dishonesty works very well right now.

    We have seen this at the state level in the past few days. How many legislators would get re-elected running on a platform of “Let’s spend more on prisons than education!” Pretty much none. But if we cut some taxes, reduce a few pensions and put in place a few mandatory sentences, we get that result, but no politician has to be honest enough to say that is what the results will be.

    It has been the same for about 30 years now, cut revenue first, then make “forced” cuts in services because we are “broke.”

    I would rather have an honest debate up front.

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