Friday’s front page opinion piece titled “Leaving money on the table” used quotes from me out of context and mischaracterized me as fiscally irresponsible. It accused me of being part of a “quiet discussion” that aims to raise taxes and go after local residents’ “money on the table.” The column was so far off base that it merits a response.
Written by columnist Rob Douglas (whose columns should appear with the other opinion pieces, not on the front page), it said, “The fiscally sound path is to keep the existing tax system and rates.” That statement assumes there’s no capacity to change our system for the better — only for the worse. Change may be scary for some, but the Steamboat Springs City Council should not defend the status quo for that reason. We ought to be open to discussion about areas for improvement. If we can allow for greater transparency in the budgeting process, potential cost savings for the taxpayer, and better planning and prioritization of how and when deferred expenditures are addressed, why wouldn’t we?
Douglas was correct in saying that I believe we ought to change our approach to budgeting. Currently, the city makes a projection about what sales tax revenue will come in and then decides how to spend it. Perhaps a better place to start would be identifying our fiscal obligations and goals and comparing them to revenue projections. For most of us, this is “budgeting 101.” We look at the expenses in our own budgets and compare them to our income to be sure that we can cover needed expenditures. If we can’t, we either redefine what “needed expenditures” are and cut expenses or increase revenue.
Douglas’ analysis of my quotes suggests that my problem with the current budgeting model is that I think we should raise your taxes so we can spend more. Actually, my concern with the current model is that it does not require a critical assessment of our expenditures prior to setting a cap on revenue available. Nor does it include a strategic approach to planning for expenditures that cannot be met from one budget cycle to the next. At budget time, we ought to have a full, transparent, public discussion about what ought to be funded based on revenue projections. And if we can’t fund something immediately but need it eventually, let’s attach a timeframe to finding funding to support it. And yes, there are revenue-generating possibilities that do not include raising your taxes. If we don’t, let’s take it off the table. This approach would provide certainty to staff and allow them to work more effectively to meet agreed upon community goals.
Such a discussion might also yield a prioritized list of our obligations and goals. On capital projects, a list exists. Other items that have been “kicked down the road,” like a plan for employee pay, float out in the ether with sporadic discussions here and there but no strategic approach to making a decision about them.
In 2012, the Tax Policy Advisory Board presented a set of recommendations about how we could be more effective in governing. Many have been implemented and were reported on at the April 17, 2013, council meeting. Things like establishing debt policies and having the city’s external auditor present to City Council make good business sense. So, when two members of the Tax Policy Advisory Board asked to meet with council member Cari Hermacinski and me to discuss additional recommendations (within their rights as residents and in compliance with the Colorado Open Meetings Law), I was happy to make time for that.
During the meeting, they suggested several ways the city could improve, one being the way we create our budget. I agree. Does that mean that I am part of a “quiet discussion” to raise your taxes? No. Improving the budgeting process does not equate to raising taxes. Fiscal discipline is a value that I espoused in my campaign and have brought to my public service. My aim is to ensure that our taxpayer money is used wisely to achieve the goals that we have set together. If you hear otherwise, please give me a call. I am happy to clarify any of my statements to be sure that they are understood correctly.
Sonja Macys is a Steamboat Springs City Council member.