The city’s budget throws into stark relief the difference between where Ottumwa is and where other cities our size are. It’s a deficit Ottumwa is unlikely to be able to make up anytime soon, which means the shortfalls may well become worse in the coming years.
In the simplest terms, Ottumwa’s property values are far below similar Iowa cities and taxes are far above those cities. Ottumwa lacks revenue coming in, and is running out of ways to raise it.
Changes are needed. Ottumwa’s new city administrator will attend his first council meeting next Tuesday. During his interview with the council, Philip Rath spoke about priority-based budgeting, and Mayor Tom Lazio dropped the term during a presentation Thursday on the budget. We don’t expect miracles, but we do hope Rath’s fresh eyes can identify ways to improve, and quickly.
There are some points that need to be understood, both on the city’s part and by the people of Ottumwa. Lazio pushed back Thursday against accusations the city has mismanaged the budget. His evidence was the city’s clean audit. But that’s a misstatement of what audits do.
Audits are designed to find instances of misappropriation, of improper accounting and other forms of malfeasance. Mismanagement need not fall into those categories. It can encompass instances in which people fail to take into account the long-term effects of their actions, creating trends which may or may not be mentioned in an audit report. So, while his claim to a clean audit is accurate, it is not quite the defense it is being presented as.
That said, we do not see intentional mismanagement of the city’s money. The decisions made over the last two years with regard to the police and fire departments by council members were contrary to the advice of the city’s professional staff. While well-intentioned, those moves played no small part in creating the situation Ottumwa now faces.
And that gets another significant accusation being made: that the city is always quick to cut public safety. That is simply not accurate. The past several years have seen numerous cuts in other departments — parks and public information to name two — and the aforementioned increases in spending on public safety.
So how did the belief public safety is first to be cut become entrenched? The fault lies at the feet of successive councils. The threat of cuts to public safety was used as a political tool to gain support for tax increases in the past because it would create a strong negative response from people. That provided the political cover members wanted, but inadvertently created the impression they were constantly targeting public safety.
Ottumwa faces very difficult choices this year and, most likely, will for the next several years. This is not the traditional refrain of “the budget is tight” that we have heard year in and year out from the city and county. This is closer to an existential risk, one that could easily see the city forced to make multiple cuts and eliminate significant services if it is not well managed.
Tuesday’s council meeting will be important. There will likely be a bigger crowd than normal. That is no bad thing. We urge both those who attend and the council itself to listen, to pay close attention to what the other side is saying.
There are unlikely to be simple, painless solutions. Not this year, and probably not for several years to come.