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:
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: