budget 3In a few weeks the Glendale City Council will begin a series of workshops to craft the Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget. The temptation will be the unexpended $17M allocated for the Coyotes lease management agreement in the FY 2012-2013 budget and what to do with it. The temptation will be spend it now. I believe that is the worst move that this council could make.

On the March 19, 2013 City Council workshop one agenda item is The Fiscal Year 2012-2013 Financial Report Update and Fiscal Year 2013-2014 Revenue Projection.  The good news is that the temporary sales tax increase generated approximately $22M for Fiscal Year 2012-13. An insightful comment from the staff report states, “An analysis of spending habits in the community for these four months (Sept. to Dec. 2012) shows that the increase in the sales tax rate had no obvious impact on the spending pattern in the community.” All of those doomsday proclamations of “no one will shop in Glendale anymore” were flat out wrong. Shoppers, it seems, didn’t want to spend the extra money for gas to go further away or they simply did not want to leave their usual venues and venture outside their comfort zones.

Forget the Coyotes for a moment. The reason for the sales tax increase, ratified by the voters, remains the fact that the city spends more than it takes in. The Fiscal Year 2012-13 General Fund Budget is $155.3 million. Of that amount approximately $22 million (15%) comes from the increase in the sales tax rate that occurs each year over the next four years. What happens when the extra $22 million annual revenue from increased sales tax  is gone as it sunsets in 2017? That is the question.

There is a solution that began implementation in FY 2012-13 and that is a $5 million reduction in expendituresbudget cuts 1 each year from FY 2013 to FY 2017. If that course of action continues when the extra $22 million is gone in FY 2017 the city will not have to make any more draconian cuts. It will have a balanced budget whose expenditures are covered by existing revenues without having to dip into its contingency fund. The Glendale staff reports also states, ” Since the news sales tax rates are set to sunset in 2017, a long-term look at the city’s operational expenses must occur in order to plan for the eventual reduction of sales tax collections. The current financial position necessitates that the plan incorporate a phased approach and the FY 2013-14 budget will be a critical component of this plan.” In other words, get the job done and cut the city’s spending.

For the past six years during the worst of the recession, Glendale’s expenditures rose as its employee base grew and operating and maintenance costs also grew. Simply put, its expenditures have not met revenues. In the last two years, the city publicly acknowledged the problem and began laying off employees because quite simply, personnel costs represent about 70% of the General Funds’ expenses. That is the major expense and will require major cuts.

A city primarily produces one thing and one thing only – service to its residents. Yes, it produces one commodity as well, water, but that cost is borne by the people that use and pay for it. Service costs are built on two items: 1. buildings and equipment with their operating expenses and maintenance; and 2. employee wages and benefits. In the past several years, the former council purposefully began reducing personnel (wages and benefits) and  non-personnel expenses (operating and maintenance). The city has reached the point where non-personnel costs have been decimated and the only way to continue to cut them further is to reduce service areas or levels meaning that further personnel reductions will be necessary.

san_wrkr[1]Whether it is libraries, public safety or trash collection, they are all services offered to residents. The cost to provide services continues to outstrip the revenue the city takes in. The city must rein in the cost of services to have any hope of creating a balanced budget in FY 2017 when it loses the extra $22 million in annual revenue. The 2012 city council committed to the plan of cutting $5 million from the budget every year until 2017. To date the new council has been reluctant to follow through.

In an effort to avoid the pain of making another $5 million in cuts this coming fiscal year and each year for the next few years, this new council may consider the $17 million in this year’s budget as “found” money and spend every dime of it. Not a good idea. If they choose that course they are not solving the underlying problem of not enough revenue to cover costs. They are merely delaying the problem and compounding it. Saving the city’s money is not a foolhardy strategy but rather it is a grace to be nurtured and preserved.

savingsThe most prudent course of action is to place that $17 million in the city’s “rainy day” (unappropriated contingency) fund and to make the necessary $5 million in cuts this year. Increasing the city’s contingency fund is a signal that the bond market considers favorably and offers the city the opportunity to decrease interest rates even further on its current debt service load of $86 million (FY 2012-13). The debt service load is the annual amount paid in principle and interest on the city’s total debt.

Another reason to place the $17 million in contingency is that there may be another deal to keep the Coyotes in Glendale. Any deal will require a certain unknown amount as the annual lease manager fee. Having that money in reserve resolves the issue of where the fee is to come from.

A simplistic analogy is that you have a $1000 monthly mortgage payment but your income is only $900 a month. What do you do? I guess you could run up more debt on a credit card but that only delays and compounds your problem.  The best way to face the problem is to cut your monthly expenses.

Will this council do what you would do? Will it responsibility continue to cut its expenses over the next four years or will it spend “found” money now to avoid pain of making further, necessary cuts and delay the problem only to face a bigger problem in FY 2017?