By George P. King Jr.
FRAMINGHAM – The City Council received the new budget proposal from the Mayor last week.
The revenues used to build the budget are of course significantly diminished. But the budget proposal did not propose to reduce spending, but instead it recommends spending most of our reserves. I know how hard it is to cut spending, as I have had to do it in the past, but there is no question we are in for rough times financially.
Even if Covid disappeared tomorrow, the damage done to our economy is going to impact us for at least a couple of years.
My experience as a public administrator in past downturns (2008 and late 1990s) has taught me that once bad times hit the public sector it takes a while to turn things around.
The quicker we take action, the better our options are and the less impact we will feel.
We can maintain our excellent core services with proper budget management.
If we don’t actually manage the budget and simply elect to fill the revenue gap with 88% of our total cash reserves as currently proposed, it will be a disaster. Options presently available to make meaningful reductions to the budget will not be as impactful a year from now. If we do not act now, we could very well be forced to cut core services in the future.
I have been an unabashed advocate of returning some of our cash reserves to taxpayers. Over the last several years, each year we have collected an average of $10 million more in revenue than we need to operate the city. Money we could have used each of those years to lower the tax rate.
I find it ironic that an administration that has argued against that approach of judiciously mitigating our tax revenue with reserves, suddenly wants to adopt it, and supersize it at that.
If we finally refund the overcollection of real estate taxes, it should go directly back to the taxpayer as a one-time bonus approach. It should not be utilized for a one time fill in for huge revenue gaps caused by Covid-19. If we use it to fill longer term revenue gaps it will be gone quickly, and we will actually be worse off.
We face the same challenge with our water and sewer enterprise funds. The budget and the supporting rate structure have doubled over the last decade, with no real planning for future downturn or rate stabilization.
Once again, the current proposal is to use nearly $6 million of taxpayer money to bail out the enterprise fund. Notwithstanding equity concerns I have with the approach, it is not a sustainable solution. We must have a real plan to operate our water and sewer system with long term rate stability.
I believe we have the capacity to reduce our budget without broad devastating impacts.
Our budget has grown steadily over the last decade. Eliminating excess expenditures and not substantially impacting services can be done, but it will require good management skills and executive leadership.
People ask me what role the Council can play.
As we have been told in the past, our most significant power is that of budgeting. I for one am willing to exercise that power to the extent necessary.
At the same time, I do not think Council led budget reductions are the optimum approach.
I hope the Mayor will resubmit her budget with a level of expenditure that makes sense for the situation we face. A budget that offers tax relief and operational efficiencies given our present circumstances. I look forward to reviewing the update!
George P. King. jr. is the City Council Chair. He was re-elected as a Councilor at large serving the entire City of Framingham in 2019. He previously served as Town Manager in Framingham.