Sunday, September 14, 2014

Welcome to the Party

I received an email from the San Angelo Tea Party recently that you can see on this weblink. They have finally discovered that  San Angelo has the second highest property tax in Texas. Welcome to the party. We've been following property and other tax rates for years. San Angelo has been the second highest property tax city in Texas for aboutt two decades and property tax doesn't even come close to showing the total tax load. We have the 4b 1/2 cent sales tax that was added back in the late nineties. There are also stealth taxes like the storm water fee which is really property tax in disguise. It's to pay for unfunded federal storm water mandates and it collects about the equivalent of 6 cents in property tax every year. Add in various other taxes and fees, etc. and San Angelo citizens pay a lot in taxes.

It seems that this video from Public Information got some peoples attention. I think that's great. Of course, there's nothing new in that video. During the last several budget sessions, this same information has been presented during one of the budget sessions or rate hearings by the city manager and staff. This high tax rate has been an issue in several local elections, especially those around sales tax and school bonds. Before our current boom, it was frequently brought up as one of the factors hurting job growth and economic development. No surprises here. The only things different this year than last is that the Council didn't lower the property tax at all, instead choosing to fix roads, and we have a video that only half way explains the problem.

The thing to remember about our tax rate is that it is driven by spending. San Angelo, like every other city in Texas and unlike the Feds, must have a balanced budget. There are several core functions, like street and water main maintenance, that need to be done and it costs about the same to fix a mile of road in San Angelo as it does in Midland, Odessa, or Wichita Falls. There are also several other areas the city spends money on that are not quite as essential, and several that many would consider luxuries. Most years the budget is set by looking at how much was spent the last year or two, adjusting for things like fuel increases and some pay raises while keeping the tax rate within a range where it doesn't have to go before the voters. 

For the last 10 years, the council has managed to drop property tax rate. That's a good thing. There have been cuts in some programs, and some services such as facility rentals have raised rates to help pay their own way. Still, there is more that needs to be done. 

Up until we started the Capital Improvement Plan and put that in the City Charter 7 years ago, planning for capital projects and maintenance was an after thought. That would probably have never happened if not for a water main break that left much of the south part of town without water right before Christmas. Finally figured out that water pipes don't last forever and they will get your attention whether you like it or not. We are still having pipes break but they are not as common and they don't have the devastating impact the Christmas break had. This council has finally gotten serious about addressing roads. 

Before he left, city engineer Bailey presented a partial list of roads that needed major work. Think it started at just over $100 million was the best estimate on how much money it would take to fix the current problems. In prior years the city was only spending about $1.5 million per year on roads. Don't have to be a math genius to see that these projects wouldn't be finished before our grand kids reached retirement age when we could start all over again. Throw in the fact that major roads only last about 20 to 30 years without major maintenance and the problem gets even clearer. This year the increased revenue is going into road maintenance. It's even more critical because the oil boom is wearing out the roads faster than normal. While the increased revenue is there they need to catch up on the long neglected infrastructure maintenance. At some point, there will be an oil bust. When that happens, they will probably stop fixing the roads again.

Making the high tax load even worse is the pay scale in San Angelo. Last time I checked, individual income in San Angelo was about 17% lower than the average for Texas. The cost of living here is at least as high as our benchmark cities. We used to get a break on housing costs but that has pretty much vanished with the current oil boom. Jobs are plentiful but the pay still lags the rest of the state.  Makes the weight of a $685  tax payment heavier on a San Angelo worker than one in Abilene.

I agree that San Angelo taxes are too high. Thing is, you can't just cut taxes. The city government has to fix spending. They can't tolerate little things like $100,000 unauthorized furniture expenditures. Have to clamp down on cost over runs. Cut back on programs that are non-essential. They must be open and honest about the complete cost of all projects from beginning to end. Must have public safety. Need to fix roads and water and sewer. Not too sure about some of the other expenses. There will be tough, unpopular choices. Stop with the candy store until the basics are taken care of. Get the spending right and the taxes will be easy to take care of. Take a look at the proposed budget. Almost $150 million. 40 pages. There are opportunities for savings in there. I do think we are certainly taxed enough already. We have to be careful while we cut spending enough.

Bored with boards

There is a lot of talk lately about boards and commissions. State of the Division has posted a couple articles that are critical of the board member selection process and the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee. I have to agree with much of what he says. I also think I understand what's at the root of the problem with boards.

It's hard for the city government to create effective boards when they're not clear on why we have boards in the first place. Here are some of the main reasons I think we need them.

The first reason we have boards is to connect the citizens with the city government. It's important that the city government not be isolated from the community as a whole. Governments need constant feedback. Feedback is need to prevent and correct errors and identify problems.  With a properly functioning board the city government and the community will connect on issues and work together to shared, supportable goals and avoid a significant number of problems. This helps reducee the "us vs. them" mindset that is so common.

The second reason to have a board is to bring a fresh perspective from outside the walls of City Hall. This is in reality a part of the first reason but it's purpose is to keep the government from being isolated. Far too often there is a traditional, legalistic, governmental rule book way of dealing with issues. A government staff that isn't connected to the community will also act defensively. A good board is a balance to traditions and power centers in City Hall. You have to balance the inside with the outside.

Another reason you need boards is to act as representatives of the city council at the working level so council has an independent view of what is going in city hall from a citizens perspective. Council can't be everywhere. That's why we have boards.

 The last reason you need a good board is you need groups that can take a long view independent of the day to day operations. City governments get in trouble when all the solutions are tied to short-term goals with little longer than an election cycle. We've had some local progress such as a capital budget we put in the charter to force planning for some stuff at least 5 years into the future. City officials still have problems thinking beyond a budget cycle or the next election. A good board has the luxury to think long range. What will our grand kids be doing? What will happen to San Angelo in a hundred or thousand years? Will it be a thriving community or just an archaeological dig? That should be part of the mission of every board.
Right now we have many boards that are probably unnecessary. We have many boards where attendance is so low they have a hard time making a quorum. Some only meet a couple times a year and really they don't have much work to do. Many have vacancies that haven't been filled for years. Many of the board members I've talked to don't know what's expected of them or what they can do or what role they play in the city government.

Four years ago I submitted a plan to the City Council. They looked at it. They voted on and approved it and then promptly forgot about it. They did make changes to the boards and commissions some of the changes were actually steps backwards. The council pretty much abandoned the selection process to city staff who does all live review and screening. It's tough for anyone with fresh perspective or a different opinion from staff to even get before Council unless they can convince a council member or the Mayor to push for them.even though or just post to be picked and selected by city council and serve at the pleasure of City Council. Boards are not staff. They don't do day to day operations. They are there to advise council and staff on policy and the future. 

Things need to change. Here are my recommendations.
1. Every board and commission should should face a review every 2 years. This review should happen at a joint session where the board should be able to tell the council why it should continue and what it has done for the past few years. Council should give feedback on how useful the board has been and what it expects in the future. Special requirements and qualifications for membership should be part of the review. If the board needs expertise, they need to have a plan on how to get it. A list of future goals should also be part of the review. At the end of the session, the council should either say "Good job. Keep it up.", "Here are changes we expect from you in the future." or "Thanks but we don't really need this board anymore."

 2. Every application for board membership should be forwarded to the appropriate council member. Staff should verify that the applicant meets the requirements for the position. If the applicant meets the requirements, the packet should go forward. If there are any staff considerations besides qualifications, those should be forwarded as part of the packet but if the person meets the qualifications their name should forwarded. The decision is for the council, not staff, to make.

3. Attendance should be monitored and reported to the council, probably at least quarterly. Any meeting that is canceled because of lack of quorum should be brought before council at the next meeting it can be put on the agenda, probably during public comments and made part of the public record.

4. Every board should have a clear, action oriented mission statement. One I particularly like is this one from the Airport Advisory Board: "The board shall act as an advisory board to the airport manager, and the city council, and is expressly directed and empowered to make a complete study of all phases of the airport operations and make recommendations from time to time for the most efficient operation of said airport." Not perfect but not bad. We need similar mission statements for all the boards. And they need to be taken seriously.

5.  Board members don't work for staff, they work for council. They do, of course, have to work with staff and and they should be supporting, not fighting staff. That being said, one of the most important functions board members should do is as a devils advocate. They should ask tough questions and not be just an echo chamber for staff. They need to have an unfiltered connection to council. They should be self governing and independent from staff in decisions and questioning.

6. A properly functioning could be part of the hiring process, especially for liaisons. They should work closely enough with staff and be knowledgeable enough in their area they can offer independent advice up the supervisory chain. They might be able to serve part of a screening committee during a job search. They should be another a set of  eyes that know the city's needs. Not sure any of them are ready for that yet but in the future I could see the water advisory board giving advice on hiring a water utilities director or engineer.

These are our thoughts today. You can see they haven't changed much over the last few years. Hope to see some of the changes soon.