Our View: City Council playing with funny money
November 3, 2012
By continuing to increase revenue projections for the purpose of funding non-budgeted expenses, the Steamboat Springs City Council is making a bad habit of irresponsible fiscal practices.
The trend continued this week, when the council voted to pay for a USA Pro Cycling Challenge stage sponsorship and an additional police officer salary by simply adjusting the city's revenue projections upward for 2013. The council did the same thing earlier in October when it decided against cutting $350,000 from Steamboat Springs Transit as part of an effort to balance a budget that, at the time, had a $600,000 shortfall.
The council's questionable practice of playing with potential revenue surpluses is made worse given that the city previously had given clear directive to its departments and other recipients of city funding that they had to meet specific budget numbers based on previously agreed-upon projections. That now appears to be a moving target, but instead of opening up the entire budgeting process to account for the additional revenues city officials think are likely in 2013, the council is picking and choosing which special interest projects get to sneak in the back door.
Earlier this summer, council member Kevin Kaminski wisely questioned the city's overly conservative revenue projections, wondering aloud what benefit there was to underestimating sales tax returns by such a significant margin.
Apparently, we have the answer: By leaving lots of room for flexibility in its budget, the city can find ways to fund unbudgeted expenses — or budgeted expenses that are on the chopping block — by simply revising its revenue projection. The council's use of that method to restore Yellow Line bus service and other anticipated Steamboat Springs Transit cuts (to the tune of $350,000), to pay for an additional police officer to patrol the downtown area and to provide a $35,000 sponsorship for hosting a stage of the 2013 USA Pro Cycling Challenge seems to demonstrate a dangerous pattern of fudging the numbers.
Of course, this is the same council that wanted to budget conservatively for purposes of growing the city's reserve fund, only to switch course this summer and push instead to use the majority of its unallocated reserves on a new police and fire station. Meanwhile, the city is negotiating a sales contract for its existing downtown police and fire campus at a cost estimated to be about $900,000 less than the city's appraised value for the property. City officials maintain that selling the property at 840 Yampa St. to Steamboat-based Big Agnes and Honey Stinger is an economic development tool.
In the past, we've applauded the council for budgeting conservatively during the uncertain economic times of the past few years. But the stabilization of the local economy provides the statistical evidence to support realistic revenue projections, not artificially low ones. It's past time that this council use accurate projections to put together a budget based in reality.