The current discussion focused on the location for a police station finesses the questions:
- Do we need new public safety facilities?
- If need exists, how to fund them?
- Is a new police station the best way to meet needs?
I will not argue here that the facility is not needed or that it is, only that the case has not been made. There have been other solutions proposed that may be a better use of our money. Unsupported statements from members of council or city staff that a facility is needed are not sufficient. In part, it is the approach to funding using so-called “reserves” that permits this undisciplined communication. Spending “reserves” (whether real or not) does not require a vote of the electorate to approve.
Voting for bonding was the process used for recent large- ticket items in our community (library, elementary school) and similar, in that there was a vote, to the process to commit funds for the airline program and the half-cent tax for education. Steamboat will support worthwhile ideas at the ballot when the need is communicated. Conversely, when we have a largely internal process that avoids the voter, we get results like the Iron Horse.
“Deferred maintenance is the practice of postponing maintenance activities such as repairs on both real property and personal property in order to save costs, meet budget funding levels or realign available budget monies. Generally, a policy of continued deferred maintenance may result in higher costs, asset failure and, in some cases, health and safety implications.”
The city of Steamboat Springs has about $6 million of current deferred maintenance and an additional $15 million of maintenance expenses in the coming years. These are things we know need to be done, but they have been put off to accumulate cash. One reason our reserves look good is that we have not been spending on these items during the recession in case those funds were needed for ordinary operations. Now, there is a danger that we will spend those funds on new construction rather than catching up with the work that has been deferred. It would be disappointing if this were then presented as the justification for new taxes
The city has had a long term plan for capital improvements and repairs, which are funded with “use tax.” In the most recent approved budget (October 2012), new public safety facilities were not mentioned on the list of the most important projects. The previously identified projects use all of the projected use tax for the foreseeable future without completing the list. At current tax receipt levels, there is a shortfall in use tax to meet those needs. This means that we may want to use general fund reserves to maintain roads and bridges until such time that construction activity returns to a level that will produce the use tax needed for this purpose.
City staff is proposing that we spend “reserve” funds to build a $9 million building claiming the reserves we have are “excessive.” This disingenuous argument ignores the fact that we have deferred maintenance and capital needs that exceed the total of our uncommitted reserves.
I applaud the fact that the current council has put decision-making off and, hopefully, into the hands of a new council. The candidates standing for election should make this a key topic of discussion. If the new council decides that new or enhanced facilities are required to the tune of $9 million, I hope they dispose of the idea of using reserves, put the proposal on the ballot and “sell” it to us on the merits.