July 27, 2017

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Dr. Malcolm Cross

A few weeks ago I wrote that the Erath County Appraisal District and its counterparts throughout the state were raising property valuations, meaning that taxpayers will have to pay more in property taxes unless they persuade the taxing authorities—cities, ISDs, etc. to cut property tax rates.  To do so taxpayers had to involve themselves in their government’s budget processes. 

The time to become involved in the shaping of the budget for the City of Stephenville is now.  According to a story published in both The Flash Today and the Empire-Tribune:

“As the city council and staff begin work on the budget for fiscal year 2017-18, citizens may offer their own input into the city’s budget.

The council follows a schedule by which citizens may make suggestions for the budget. Written recommendations should be filed with the City Secretary prior to budget work sessions. Citizens will have an opportunity to personally address the council with their budget proposals at the regular council meeting which will be held on June 7 at 5:30 p.m. The deadline for citizens’ submittal is June 13.

Copies of the 2016-17 budget are on file for viewing in the Stephenville Public Library and online at the city’s website at www.stephenvilletx.gov .

For further information about submitting an idea for the budget, please contact Finance Director Monica Harris at 918-1211; Staci King at 918-1287 or Cindy Stafford at 918-1212.”

Everyone interested in any aspect of city finance should become involved.  The budgetary process is the most important routine process in the city’s administrative system.  It’s where the rubber meets the road.  Anyone can talk of lower taxes or more spending, but it’s through budgeting that actual decisions concerning actual tax rates and where to spend the collected funds are made. 

Moreover, anyone interested in attaining just one particular goal—lower taxes, or more spending on roads, for example—should witness and participate as much as possible in all budgetary decisions, because every budgetary decision effects and is effected by every other decision.  Given the state-imposed legal requirement that local governments balance their budgets, Stephenville’s city council can only cut taxes if it’s willing to cut spending as well, and it can only spend more if it taxes more, or raises users fees.  If more is to be spent on one program—say, public safety—than either other programs must be cut or taxes must be raised.    

So, what should citizens do, and how and when should they do it?

The above-copied story describes the basic opportunities available to citizens, and when and how they should be used.  But citizens can do much more to enhance their effectiveness:

First, citizens should attend not only the regular council meetings, but the various workshops and committee meetings to be held throughout the summer wherein city council members will discuss budgetary affairs with the administrator, department directors, other staff, and each other.  Here the attendees will not only learn more about the process and the reasoning behind the decisions that are made, but they’ll also be establishing their own credibility as citizen-commentators on the budgetary process.  Everyone has a right to speak before the city council on budget issues, and the council is obligated to listen to everyone who does.  But those who attend the most budget sessions are frequently taken the most seriously.  I’ve heard council members dismiss the concerns of those who’ve attended only the final council meeting at which final decisions are made, saying that their concerns are too little, too late, and don’t reflect an understanding of the issues as they were being fully thrashed out in the committee meetings and workshops.

Second, anyone who advocates tax cuts or spending increases in particular programs should understand that tax cuts or spending increases in some programs will usually require cuts elsewhere.  They’re under no legal obligation to say where the money to finance tax cuts or spending increases is to come from, but they’ll enhance their credibility if they can offer suggestions anyway.  A major reason why the city council in the past has voted to increase taxes over the objections of some citizen participants has been to cover programs which nobody wants cut, so the taxes had to be raised to cover the programs to meet the legal requirement that the budget balance.  That may be why the city councils elected since 2014 have declined to cut the tax rate back to 2013 levels, despite the fact that most city council members have been on record as saying the 2013 tax increase was unnecessary.  Obviously it was necessary or it would have been repealed in its entirety.

Third, citizen participants, and city council members themselves, should recognize that nobody can ever get everything he or she wants in its entirety.  There’s only so much money, and so much one can do with what’s available.  The most influential arguments made by participants in the budgetary process, whether by citizens or by council members themselves, are those that will be based on facts and logic, not emotion.

Fourth, participation this year will increase one’s chances for success, but not guarantee it.  But those who fail to achieve success during this budget cycle should not give up.  Rather, they should take to heart those words of comfort recited by everyone whose favorite baseball team fails to win the World Series:  “There’s always next year.”  Then they should start getting ready for the 2018-2019 budget cycle.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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