George Hresko: Quo vadis?

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Approximately one decade ago I commented to a then-Steamboat Springs city councilperson that I did not see how council was able to make consistent, logical decisions given what appeared to be a random stream of ideas, suggestions, concepts arriving on their desks. That person asked what I meant.

I replied that it was not obvious to me that there was a solid context — call it a long-term direction if you wish — into which these various thoughts would be fit, and so dealing with each one was, to a greater or lesser extent, a one-off decision. Such a long-term plan flows naturally from the multiple, very consistent visioning exercises and area plans that have been developed over three decades, which emphasize maintaining a sense of community, the importance of open space, ensuring historic continuity while developing the town economically.

In the immediately past several weeks, this newspaper has had articles and comments concerning significant potential expenditures at the rodeo grounds, the need for sidewalks on several downtown streets, extensions to the Yampa River Core Trail, the proposed new police station, long-term traffic concerns on Lincoln Avenue through the downtown part of the city — which come readily to mind. Obviously, the situation hasn’t changed in a decade.

City Council and city administration could, while adhering to Colorado state requirements, prepare multi-year operating and capital budgets, both of which would obviously address in a structured manner, these and other issues that fit the community’s expressed desires. And these could be subdivided, especially the capital budget, into categories such as regulatory requirements, environmental, maintenance and expansion.

Elaboration in this manner would allow not only City Council, but interested parties as well as average citizens, to better understand how our monies are being spent, and if our desires are being met.

On Thursday, Rob Douglas asked “Who is driving city policy?” In my humble opinion, City Council has defaulted, for a very long time, in driving city policy, by not creating a process to force open policy discussions.

A planning and budgeting process that begins with the very broad picture early in the year, and then narrows progressively through three or four stages, to annual budgets and capital spending plans, as outlined above, will go a long way toward “driving policy.” I suggest it is well past time that City Council create such a process.

Clearly, the citizens are asking for it. We are early in the year, City Council, now is the time to begin.

George Hresko

Steamboat Springs

Comments

Dan Hill 1 month, 3 weeks ago

George, transparency that balances the short and long term is definitely a good thing. I'd go a step further and suggest the City publish a set of accounts prepared on an accrual basis that meet GAAP - like corporations are required by law to do (the louder the screaming you hear when suggesting this, the more you know that the books are being cooked).

Right now, we are still digging the hole deeper, spending every spare cent on new infrastructure, when we are struggling to maintain what we already have and our current budgeting processes serve to hide the facts. Don't see an entry for depreciation? Doesn't mean it isn't happening, just that we are pushing the costs into future years.

P.S. Accrual accounting also prevents nasty surprise on things like pensions, because then you have to explicitly acknowledge the (potentially unsustainable) promises for spending future taxes by showing them as liabilities on the balance sheet. Does anyone in Steamboat actually know what the City's future liabilities for pensions and health benefits are? Maybe it's not a problem, but the numbers ought to be readily available.

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Fred Duckels 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Excellent ideas all, legacy costs are often ignored and across the nation we find tales of woe. I see the tendency of our leaders to react to grants as SOP rather than developing our own plan. Bargains too good to pass up are always a temptation.

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Scott Wedel 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Depreciation is not a cash expense and easily distorts a budget because many items have a different functional lifespan than their depreciation schedule. A piece of heavy equipment such as a road grader is expected to have a 15+ year lifespan, but might be depreciated over 5 or 7 years. The question is whether the long term budgets include predictable expenses.

The police station was a budget fiasco for SB because just a few years ago there was no identified need for a new police station by 2015 or whenever.

I haven't gone in depth and asked the City about details of their budget because the city is so unpleasant to deal with.

I have a deeper understanding of the county budget because the county commissioners are far welcoming of being asked and answering questions. The county budget shows that capital reserves face a squeeze in the future and didn't show how that was calculated or have any comments on why and what that meant. The county commissioners along with the county manager took the time to explain to explain that dip in capital reserves is because a bunch of equipment is scheduled to be replaced at nearly the same time. That the actual situation isn't quite as bad because it is based upon no increase in revenues but continuing inflation in the cost of the equipment. And some of that equipment has a history of lasting longer and retaining more value.

The county also agreed to put their detailed budget on their website so the public can find the answers to questions they may have about what is presented in the budget overview (which is still pretty detailed).

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Scott Wedel 1 month, 3 weeks ago

I think George is right that predictable long term needs are not being budgeted.

But the real issue isn't a lack of budget plans for identified needs, but a lack of justification and documented justification on what are the identified needs and why other items are given a lower priority.

Nothing new or unexpected happened to transform the police station from being tolerable to being an urgent need. It would appear that a new police station has been a recognized need, but was being a lower priority so that money would not have to be budgeted to pay for it. Just as it appears the city was not budgeting for storm water system maintenance because it was not a fun way to spend money compared to free concerts and so on.

The prioritization of capital needs should have had statements from the chief of police on their capital needs including a statement on whether the current police station is acceptable. If the chief of police in 2000-2010 was stating the current police station is not acceptable or will be unacceptable when the police dept has a few more officers then the public could have asked the city council why wasn't a new police a higher priority. But somehow we went from an acceptable, if imperfect police station, to urgently needing a new police station and that is, ultimately, really awful budget management.

Thus, the question for the city's longer term budget needs is what other items are being ignored or downgraded because they are inconvenient or troublesome to deal with?

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Steve Lewis 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Good letter George. I thought this was being done?

Future budgets are best viewed as extensions to past budget history. That is how you graph a proper review of our fiscal state. In that budget style, graphs indicate consistency or shifts in policy and policy effects. That is how you can say which city council did good or bad for Steamboat's fiscal health.

Obviously taking different angle snapshots of the budget over time is only marginally useful. We should have a 40 year set of budget data.

The 2004 Tax Policy Advisory Board had smart CFO's from successful large corporations as members. They helped identify the data needed and it was then presented by staff in a very easy to digest array of tables showing the previous decades of budgets. I was a fiscal rookie and the presentation made sense to me. Not sure if the more recent TPAB went where the first one did, data wise. There were certainly different politics affecting the two groups. I would suggest members of those TPABs identify their best data and it be carried forward. Subsequent tax review boards should pick up on those trends, and add their own data interests to the whole to be carried forward.

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jerry carlton 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Oz Run for city council. I will vote for you. Although I totally dislike your liberal views, I like your conservative views on fiscal responsibility. With you and Scott Ford on council maybe economic conservatism would at least have a voice..

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john bailey 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Jerry , I concur about Oz , but he said awhile back he won't do it........too bad too...~;0)

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Bob Smith 1 month, 3 weeks ago

wow. I find it fascinating that Scott can on one hand be so disliked on these boards, but at the same time command such respect. listen to this guy! and if you find yourself in a position where you disagree with him, please question yourself. Scott is almost always right (although it may not be what you WANT to hear...:-) - he speaks the thruth

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Scott Wedel 1 month, 3 weeks ago

I live a couple of blocks from Scott Ford and I occasionally inflict my views on him.

He has observed of how what seems like a tidal wave of public support can actually be a relatively few motivated people talking to city council members. So when you feel motivated about an issue then you have surprisingly significant influence if you call your city council member and express your concerns.

Steve,

It is also my understanding that the city does long term budgeting. Though, it appears to be badly flawed in that something like a new police station can be a low priority in one year and a critical need the next. Seems to me the documentation/justification of the prioritization of a capital need is lacking which allows such radical quick changes without explanation of what happened.

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Steve Lewis 1 month, 3 weeks ago

It would be interesting reporting to explore exactly who moved the police station from a low priority to the top priority.

In my view the police station question and the $$ involved there get overly complicated when mixed with other agendas. Helping Big Agnes, revitalizing Yampa St, resolving the Iron Horse Inn, and now this mixing with a YVRMC venture. When taxpayers see added moving parts, it is easier to doubt the benefits. Personally I feel the economy is still weak, and would not be spending so much of our reserves. This will exacerbate our needs in other areas going forward.

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