Tuesday’s vote by the council on the Fiscal 2021 budget was no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to city government. Councils rarely make major changes to the budget proposal they receive from the finance department, and this time was no different.
The process was more rancorous than normal. There were loud protests at the proposal to cut positions in the city’s public safety departments. And during Tuesday’s session the council and mayor lashed back at what they viewed as unfair and inaccurate accusations. In one badly misguided case that led to making inaccurate accusations of their own.
We’re not going to waste time rehashing the meeting because there’s a much more pressing question for Ottumwa: What’s next?
When the proposed budget was first presented in February, there was little response from the council members. They seemed to many to have been stunned by the picture it painted. There was a sense that, while officials knew the budget would be tight, no one anticipated the kind of budget crunch they were facing.
That can’t happen again. Projections for next year already forecasted a difficult budget, and that was well before the scale of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 epidemic began to come into focus.
How can the city stay ahead of next year’s potential fiscal nightmare? This year must be the Year of the Budget.
City officials must spend the upcoming year doing a deeper examination of the city’s finances and spending than it has ever done previously. It must look at all options to raise revenues. It must consider every chance to cut spending.
As one of our editorial board members put it, “Any savings that can be made without endangering the community should be looked at.”
Nothing should be off the table. Would annexation help raise valuations for the city? Can there be a greater emphasis on spending locally? The city dismissed in broad terms proposals for franchise fees during Tuesday’s session, but the issue should be revisited. If the suggestion is rejected again, there needs to be an explanation given in more detail than Tuesday allowed.
Benefits for city employees should be on the table, too. Ottumwa pays a far higher percentage of those than other communities, and an astronomically higher amount than anything found in the private sector. It’s one thing to do that when the money is there. It’s quite another to continue when reserves disappear.
It’s not just city officials who should be examining the budget. Those who want to offer their own ideas need to gather the data to make precise, concrete proposals that lay out details down to the last cent.
The city also needs to begin thinking in terms that extend more than just the next budget. It may not be possible to be precise for a two- to three-year outlook, but even general terms might well improve decisions made now.
That is a tremendous range, and one that we don’t believe can be addressed through business as usual. It will require a sustained, sharp focus on the part of both professional and elected city officials.
As we’ve said before, we don’t believe this situation was created by explicit mismanagement of city funds or personal vendettas. A lack of imagination and foresight may be more accurate. It cannot happen again in 12 months.
After this bruising episode, there can be no excuses for the city about preparations for the next budget. There can be no surprises. There can be no stunned silences.
How the city handles the next year will define its financial credibility for the long term. It is a challenge Ottumwa cannot afford to fail.