City finances- Lots of work still to be done

Sunday, August 18, 2002

After months of study and two special task forces, Cape Girardeau officials are no nearer to a clear-cut, sensible blueprint for future budget needs than they were when they started.

There are plans out there. Both task forces have plans. The city administrative staff has its ideas. And certainly a lot of coffee-shop wizards have their own thoughts. But so far there is nothing that would give voters any comfort level to approve recommended tax and fee increases. But it's not too late. These shortcomings can be remedied -- perhaps not easily. But, with enough time to do a thorough job, a workable plan can be formulated.

A task force of employees from every department looked at the city's financial situation for months and concluded voters should be asked to approve a three-quarter-cent sales-tax increase to raise an estimated $6 million a year. That task force had hoped the tax issue might be on the primary-election ballot earlier this month, but city council members wisely held off.

The council named a second task force in July, this one consisting of 13 city residents. After several poorly attended public hearings, a review of the first task force's recommendations and tours of city facilities, the citizen task force came up with its own recommendations.

Instead of trying to address all of the city's needs in one fell swoop, the citizens task force made an effort to pick the most urgent city needs and to recommend a variety of revenue sources -- five in all -- each of which would require voter approval.

The citizens task force's recommendations would have generated $3.9 million dollars based on information provided by city officials -- information which has turned out to be faulty. Those funds would have paid for unspecified increases in personnel costs -- both raises and additional employees -- of $1.3 million a year and unspecified equipment replacement of $1.1 million a year.

In addition, the task force recommended going ahead with four major capital projects -- replacement of Fire Station No. 3 ($1.8 million), an aquatic center ($5 million), police annex and renovations ($4.9 million) and storm water improvements ($3.6 million) -- that would cost a total of $15.3 million. To pay for these improvements, the task force anticipated annual debt-retirement costs of $1.4 million for the next 20 years.

The task force was pressured to submit its report last week so the city council would have it in time to consider placing the recommended tax and fee increases on the November ballot. But the strong negative sentiment of the Aug. 6 primary sent a clear signal to the members of the task force, which urged the council not to put any of the proposal before the voters until next February. Even that might be an optimistic time frame to develop the information needed to convince voters to approve the package.

In the meantime, the task force also must plow around the erroneous information it was given by city staff members during its deliberations. Estimates of revenue from a recommended use tax appear to be way out of kilter, and a recommended increase in the city tax on cigarettes is prohibited by state law.

Melvin Gateley, a former councilman who was instrumental in shaping the city's transportation trust fund, served as co-chair of the citizens task force. Gateley agrees that there is considerable work to be done before any solid recommendations can be made regarding the city's financial situation.

For one thing, Gateley knows that the reason city voters have twice approved a special sales tax for streets is because there were specific project lists that ranked each project by priority. Voters have watched as that list was followed right down the line. As a result, there is considerable confidence in approving such a tax for itemized needs.

That's not the case with the latest task-force recommendations. Aside from the four major capital items and the estimates of what it would take each year to pay off bonded indebtedness, there is no itemized list of the $2.4 million for increased personnel costs and equipment replacement.

It's clear that the citizens task force's job is far from over. And Gateley intends to ask Monday night for council approval to continue the task force's meetings. This would allow members to do their own research and get specific details about some of the spending city officials are pushing for.

This is a good idea. If the city's needs are as great as we're being led to believe, then someone has to come up with details that will convince taxpayers that there are needs and that the most urgent needs will be tackled first.

This should be the goal of the citizens task force. And it shouldn't stop its work until it's satisfied that it has good information to present to the public.

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