Monday, December 24, 2007

Budgets reflect choices 

THe St. Cloud Times ran a story in yesterday's paper announcing that Sauk Rapids property taxes will rise. The subheading reads "Hike reflects loss of Local Government Aid." Yet inside the story we learn, that isn't entirely true.
The final general fund budget was set at $5.19 million, a 9 percent increase compared with the 2007 budget.

The budget was approved without much deviation from the preliminary budget, Finance Director Jack Kahlhamer said.

It includes an additional $20,000 for the street maintenance budget, as it will cost more to maintain the downtown beautification efforts related to the bridge project.

The city also agreed to fully pay for the Sauk Rapids-Rice school resource officer.

The school district decided it no longer could pay its share of the officer�s salary, Kahlhamer said.

Sauk Rapids is also looking to add one full-time position, either a police officer or maintenance worker, he said.

But the decision to hire a new employee could depend on funding outlooks � and Local Government Aid � in the years ahead.

The city will see a reduction of $140,000 in LGA in 2008 and is unsure whether cuts will continue.
OK, let's do a little math. 9% of $5.19 million is $467,100. LGA is falling by $140,000. Another $20,000 is going to downtown beautification after the building of the new Sauk Rapids bridge. (As someone who drives through downtown SR each weekday morning during the school year, I will say you are getting at least some value for that $20k.)

That leaves over $300,000. What do we know about it? We know the school district, which lost a levy vote last month, decided to cut a position and that the city chose to pay for it instead. Perhaps this was agreed between the city and district, but at any rate it supports a claim that the city is raising your taxes because the district couldn't. We know the city is also looking for money for another position as well. It will choose to do so depending on whether more milk flows from the LGA teat.

So why does the newspaper run a sub-head reading "Hike reflects loss of Local Government Aid"?? Why not say "Hike reflects hiring decisions of Local Government"?

Note that this same newspaper, in the very same section, runs an editorial criticizing the vintage of science textbooks the school board is using. What is their preferred method of paying for this?
This board points the bulk of the blame at state and federal governments for everything from unfunded mandates to an outdated K-12 education funding formula. To say nothing of neither entity having a credible estimate as to what it takes to educate today's students to today's standards.

That's not to say St. Cloud school board members and district administration are free of blame. Clearly, more local diligence the past several years likely would have raised awareness, perhaps even funds, to address this situation.
Obviously the paper has forgotten the basics of budget constraints. Deciding to have newer textbooks or prettier downtowns or an extra maintenance worker can be paid for in three ways: you can tax more, you can borrow more, or you can spend less on something else. The Times editorial board and its headline writers appear blind to that last choice. If the newspaper were to, let's say, hire another reporter, it could either raise prices on the paper or its ads, it could borrow more money from its Gannett parent, or it could cut spending somewhere else in the office. I know the people at the Times, they are smart people, they know that choice and make it EVERY DAY. What is it, then, that blinds them to using that same logic to a textbook?

The school board has made its choices: It chose to continue to use vintage textbooks. Now I don't know what new things have happened in physics in the last decade that are imperative to put in front of high school students in their textbooks (is there a webpage that can substitute?) But was it imperative enough to get teachers to accept a lower salary? Was it imperative enough to forgo keyless entries in all classrooms? Was it imperative enough to kill off a couple trips for the dance team?

Your budget reflects your choices, but the choices will only be rational when the budget constraint is hardened. The Times is wheezing for softening that constraint, and its headlines reflect that the only ones who will have to face a hard budget constraint are taxpayers.

Who always have.

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