Coatesville budget vote signals real progress

Kudos to City Council for stepping up to address fiscal mess

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoIn a world of typically boring municipal budgets, the City of Coatesville is about to get very interesting.

Monday night, the City Council voted to approve a preliminary budget for 2015 that does two seemingly impossible things: it doesn’t raise property taxes and it doesn’t dip into the city’s dwindling trust fund.

That means that city administrators are going to need to find almost $2 million in cuts to the budget — planned originally for $10.8 million.

While its likely that some changes will occur between now and Dec. 29 — when the council has to adopt the final budget — don’t underestimate the importance of this vote.

Sure, it’s not the exact path I personally would have taken — I’d have gone for a modest tax increase, budget cuts and a small loan of $400,000 from the trust fund — but instead of taking the easiest path and just taking the $1.7 million from the trust fund, City Council isn’t acting like Santa Claus is going to show up and bring the city a couple of million dollars.

It also signaled to City Manager Kirby Hudson that it is long overdue for he and his staff to develop a five-year (and maybe even a 10-year) plan for managing the city’s finances and finding a route to growth and sustained fiscal health. It’s time for a plan — because up until now, the city was basically headed over a waterfall, furiously trying to build a barrel on the way down.

Monday’s vote signals that this council — finally — is brave enough to take action that slows down that potential plummet onto the rocks below. This is a council willing to take the tough stance and fight to avoid the widespread damage that crash landing the city into Act 47 status would cause for the city and beyond.

City Council member Ed Simpson has seemed like a lone voice in the woods for years, suggesting that year in and year out, council and administration should confront the fiscal issues that the city faces, only to be outvoted. This year, though, he seems to have a lot of company — brave souls willing to finally change the status quo and change the course of the city.

And while the ultimate solution is going to take the greater community, from the county to the state, to solve the issue long-term, as the old saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”

This represents a serious move in the right direction.

Is the budget as approved Monday workable? In a word, no.

There probably aren’t $2 million in cuts to be found in the budget without dramatically cutting services, and increasing risk to public safety and property. When 66% — a figure cited by City Finance Director John Macarelli — of the budget is people, cutting nearly 20% of the budget means cutting cops and converting the fire department back to an all-volunteer force, and then some.

Making the city less safe — especially after the recent dramatic improvement in the city’s police department and a general feeling that real progress is being made to cut down crime and take back the streets — isn’t going to help grow the tax base.

That having been said, budget cuts need to be part of the solution, I think in the neighborhood of $1 million is possible — tough choices to be sure — but still better than seeing the city enveloped by a state takeover in three years.

And yes, the city’s landlords don’t want to hear this, but a modest tax hike should be part of the formula, too. And honestly, from a selfish standpoint, they should want one, too.

Why? Less police and more crime will drive down the value of their property. It will also mean less good tenants to rent their homes and apartments — which means a higher cost of doing business anyway.

If there are budget cuts, if the borrowing from the trust fund can be slowed to a rate than can last decades rather than 36 months and there is a real plan to manage the city’s finances through the end of the decade, the city’s taxpayers would be wise to invest in the city, rather than go for short-term gains. It is both fair and wise for property owners to demand all of those things if they are asked to support a tax increase.

So in short, the pain must be shared, tempered where possible so as not to inhibit future growth and it must be tied to a real plan forward, not just some vague hope of dealing with it down the road.

For once in Coatesville, the buck stops here.

Kudos to the City Council for putting up the stop sign.

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