GOP: Budget remains top priority
On August 15, the City Council approved North Star, a marketing consultant company out of Nashville, TN, to carry out a comprehensive marketing campaign for the City. This campaign is a joint venture between North Star, businesses in the Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor’s Marketing Task Force, and the City. North Star’s consulting fees of $60,000 will be covered by donors from the business community and the City. North Star has developed a strong track record of working with states and municipalities to develop in-depth, comprehensive marketing strategies that are implementable. Our goal is to create a brand, a truly unique identity, for the city of Bristol that will provide greater economic development, satisfied residents, and attract more tourism opportunities.
In order for this effort to be as successful as possible though, we must also fix our structural fiscal problems. The City once again faces a deficit between $7.5 and $12 million. How is it that after passing a six percent tax increase last year, the City remains in the red? Let us break down the budget process, how Bristol has gotten to this point, and the steps we have taken as the Council majority to get us back on track.
First and foremost, we’d like to explain the makeup of the Joint Board, and the process in which budgets are created and ultimately adopted. The Board of Finance and City Council form the Joint Board. Overall, 15 members make up the Joint Board, which consists of the six City Councilors and eight appointed, not elected, Board of Finance members. The Mayor also sits on the Board of Finance as the ninth member. The Board of Finance outnumbers the City Council, so as to make sure decisions are kept in the hands of financial experts and not politicians. It is the duty of the Board of Finance to hold budget workshops with City Departments to adopt a budget to bring to the Joint Board for approval.
Upon taking office in November 2011, the newly elected Republican majority on the City Council was presented with a budget deficit of $4 million. That number ballooned to a final total of $12.8 million after Department requests, healthcare increases and debt service payments. For years the City's Joint Board has not budgeted with the out years in mind. Zero-based budgets have not been utilized, and detailed monthly expenditure reports have yet to be instituted. The City has relied on Federal and State grants, ARRA money and borrowing from reserves to cover budget deficits, rather than making cuts or addressing the structural problems.
The reason we mention this is not to cast blame on past administrations, but rather to inform you of the circumstances surrounding the City’s structural budget issues and why we need significant changes going forward. To combat our budget issues, we, the majority on the City Council, proposed $1.5 million in simple cuts to the Joint Board. In addition, we charged City Hall with investigating department consolidation and privatization. Beyond this, we have proposed a new non-profit for parks improvement and maintenance, and commissioned a thorough review of the City’s current business incentives as compared to neighboring towns.
Unfortunately, the cuts we offered were voted down by the Joint Board, and our votes to reject a six percent tax increase were outvoted by the rest of the Joint Board. Consolidation and privatization research is still ongoing, although we anticipate a course of action to be drawn by Winter 2012. One bright spot is that the Parks Board has supported the non-profit donation fund to help support parks improvements and maintenance.
So where do we go from here? On Monday, August 20 we will unveil part two of this release, detailing the steps that will need to be taken in order to get Bristol back on the right track, and the benefits of doing so. Following that will be a series of Town Hall meetings to get feedback and to engage the public in this difficult, but crucial process. With everyone’s help and cooperation, we can ensure Bristol’s best days are yet to come.
Councilman Eric Carlson
Councilman Ken Cockayne
Councilman Derek Czenczelewski
Councilman Henri Martin
MONDAY (or Tuesday) PRESS RELEASE
On Thursday, August 16 (OR FRIDAY, AUGUST 17), the Republican Majority of the City Council addressed the City’s marketing initiative and outlined the budgetary process, as well as our current fiscal situation. This is part two of the conversation regarding the steps that must be taken in order to get our fiscal house in order, and to ensure that our marketing efforts are as successful as possible.
In order to fix our structural budget problems, a combination of the following may be necessary:
1. Union Concessions (wages, positions, furloughs, health insurance cost sharing)
2. Early retirement packages
3. Liquidation of unused assets
4. Consolidation or elimination of departments
We will continue to meet with City officials to establish a true cost analysis of City services. Depending on how the numbers unfold, the next step will be to scrap the plan if the savings are insignificant, or to make a motion asking the Mayor to start negotiations for a contractual buyout if the savings prove to be significant. Simultaneously, a motion will have to be made to send any services determined to show savings out to RFP (requests for proposal). The Purchasing Department would be in charge of creating the RFP that would detail all the tasks that must be performed contractually.
We have identified a list of cuts and concessions totaling approximately $5.6 million. In addition, we will be requesting feedback from the community to determine which services are most essential to our citizens. Union concessions will likely need to be made, including health insurance cost sharing, wage grade changes, overtime structure changes, potential layoffs and furloughs. Over 70 percent of the City’s budget is tied to salaries and benefits, and to overlook this area is not an option. Over the past two years the City has faced approximately $4 million in increased healthcare costs, with no additional revenue sources and fixed employee cost sharing.
Just like we will be asking for feedback from our citizens, we will be doing the same with our workers at City Hall. City Hall may need to shift to a 4.5-day schedule for non-emergency services. The Board of Education will have to take a hard look at their budget and identify the true necessities, our children’s education being number one. Lastly, early retirement packages may need to be offered, with positions going unfilled through attrition or new hires being made at lower salaries.
We are asking for the support of the public, City employees, Board of Finance, Board of Education and the Mayor in this effort. Nearly half of our full-time City employees do not live in Bristol, including some of our department heads, managers and highest earners. We need all City employees, even those who know Bristol only as a job, to take the same level of pride in their work and responsibility in ensuring the City is financially sustainable not only for its’ employees, but also for its’ citizens. Our employees and citizens need to understand that the City is not on a sustainable path, and like in business, when the business is losing money changes need to be made. Some of the items mentioned will require a majority vote of the Joint Board, while others will require the Mayor and our Unions to enter negotiations. We are offering our support to the Mayor in these negotiations, should he offer us the opportunity to serve as counsel in them.
We understand that these measures will cause concern, and that the effects could hurt. But unless serious actions are taken, the path the City finds itself on will end in massive yearly tax hikes that will be detrimental to the business community and our citizens. The efforts to market the city, redevelopment of downtown and all the efforts made by concerned citizens in the community to make Bristol a better place will be made much more difficult, if not impossible. It is our mission to tackle the challenge head on and treat the disease, not just the symptoms.
While this may sound gloomy, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The benefits of getting our fiscal house in order include more efficient government, a more predictable mill rate, greater pride in the community, increased entertainment opportunities, and more quality businesses and citizens looking to stay or relocate here. Just as important as cuts and changing our structure is the attraction of new industry, jobs and taxpaying citizens. But we must be able to market the City in order to grow our tax base, and in order to market the City, we need to get our fiscal house in order. Changing the course will require cooperation from multiple parties, and we remain hopeful that the parties identified here will rise to the occasion with us and do what’s best for Bristol.