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Feb 17

Politicians Say More Taxes Will Solve Everything … And The Band Played On

Comments (0) 12:00 AM posted by admin |

This is going to sound corny and folksy, but here goes.I’m an engineer. That’s what I do for a living. I believe my job is to solve problems. From the first moment you tell anyone on a college campus that you are an engineering major, they begin to beat problem solving methodology into your head. They don’t stop until you’re gone. It’s pretty simple really. Identify. Understand. Integrate the parameters. Don’t fix the sympton. Always fix the root cause of the problem.

Last night, the Ypsilanti City Council and the department heads got together to discuss the budget and the looming financial disaster. It should be noted this isn’t the fault of Mayor Farmer or the other members of City Council. This isn’t the fault of City Manager Ed Koryzno. This isn’t even my fault. The blame lays squarely on the doorstep of our legislators in Lansing. The structural way they currently fund cities like Ypsilanti is broken. When the voters of Michigan approved the Headlee Amendment in 1978 and the passed Proposal A in March of 1994, they set in motion the mechanism that would destroy the ability for cities to function effectively. That’s what needs fixing. That’s the root cause.

Ypsilanti isn’t the only municipality feeling a budget crunch. Royal Oak investigated selling their City Hall as well as turning off every third street light at night. Mount Clemens closed their recreation department and put an income tax initiative on the ballot only to remove it after immense pressure. Warren laid off 40 firefighters. Detroit destroyed their aquarium. Plymouth cut 25% of their city staff positions. Even Ann Arbor toyed with the idea of an income tax for a while. Not many municipalities are exempt from this pain, and the ones that are won’t be for long.

The philosophical question becomes, do you try and fix the root cause? Or do you make cuts, find new revenue, and patch the problem up for a couple more years?

The sole voice of reason came from Ward 2 Councilmember John Gawlas when he deftly pointed out that even with an income tax that has no sunset provision, the City will be in the red by 2014 with the big assumptions that State funding isn’t cut below its current level of $3.2M and health care costs only increase 15% a year.

Yeah, I wouldn’t bet on those assumptions remaining constant either.

The idea to eliminate Council stipends ($45K savings) was kicked around (the Mayor, Gawlas, Nickels, and Filipiak agreed to the cut, Richardson and LaRue said no). Eliminating the AATA bus subsidy was discussed ($170K savings). So was eliminating the Records Clerk and a Police Support Officer in the Police Department ($90K savings). It was agreed to consider doubling the fees for festivals such as Elvisfest and the Orphan Car Show (this would raise $17.5K in revenue). The subsidy to the Ypsilanti DDA is gone ($12.5K savings). Turning off street lights will be investigated. So will eliminating leaf and yard refuse pickup. Maybe we even stop mowing the grass in the parks. The message was clear. Make the cuts visible. [ed. note: These cuts are not final, they will only be discussed and investigated, but they are primary courses of action in balancing the budget.]

The topic of an income tax was discussed at length too. It needs to go before voters, but it can’t go before voters too soon. The Mayor said they need to wait until next year because residents must first feel the impact of the cuts. The problem with that timeline is that an income tax couldn’t go into effect until calendar year 2008. City Manager Ed Koryzno would have to pull two budgets full of brutal cuts together before he saw the revenue. With four seats up for election in August, most agreed the income tax proposal can’t be on the ballot then or it would hurt their chances for re-election. Most agreed that a November election was most politically prudent, but it was not clear whether or not the systems for collecting such a tax (should an initiative actually pass) could be in place by January 1, 2007. The message was clear though. Guilt residents into adopting an income tax. Scare them so much they beg for one.

I once asked State Representative Alma Wheeler Smith how can we expect to get the State to notice Ypsilanti’s financial problems if we make cuts, pass income taxes, and limp along? What is the incentive for the State to fix the root cause of the problem if we keep putting band-aids on it? She didn’t have an answer for me.

No one had an answer for that question last night either. Just slap a band-aid on it and let someone else worry about it in seven years.

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