Can Grand Rapids taxpayers afford utopia?

February 5, 2016
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Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss set an optimistic tone in her first State of the City speech, including visions of a utopia unbridled by any budget constraints or concerns.

Her honor is certainly allowed one last campaign speech in her first month of office, but budget work for the next fiscal year begins in earnest.

So, too, should her community dialog matching real numbers — taxes, fees and assessments — to the several government expansions she proposes, the complete overhaul and additional staffing of the city’s Parking (aka “Mobility”) Department and several new city executive positions.

It is easier to maintain an optimistic tone as city tax revenues continue to grow, and the city calculated an estimated gain of more than $2 million in income tax receipts early into the 2016 fiscal year.

It must be noted, too, that voters approved additional taxes for local streets and maintenance and for parks (a fund that was exhausted in the first year when the number of work projects and costs outstripped what the city collected from taxpayers).

The addition of the new Vital Streets plan and the mystery of its full cost certainly was not the reason business groups and residents approved additional funding; it was, rather, the angst of crumbling roads and sidewalks, and the ability to sustain repairs and repaving.

The long road to Grand Rapids city budget “surpluses” was paved with the gold of fee increases for almost every city service from trash to lighting, in addition to many more assessed to businesses. A tax is a tax even under the guise of “fees.”

City leaders and staff point with pride to building financial reserves, but reserves are not “special” — they are essential.

The city has continuing liability in its “legacy” costs, even after the Great Recession layoffs, renegotiated contracts and benefit reductions.

Flat wages, low productivity, GR’s rank at the bottom of the U.S. pay scale and expectations of a looming recession beg from those “surpluses.”

Given state financial liabilities now pending, one might also presume the state will again cut revenue sharing (that is revenue from governmental units that is not “shared” in return).

The plans made of optimistic visions must be balanced with real money. The mayor referred to a photo she’s framed — a picture of a building roof with a sign reading, “The People are the City.”

The people also are the payers from whom all funds are taken.

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