Fire Fight: The Revenue Question

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In their last meeting, Ferguson council members hosted a presentation by the fire department outlining the need to spin the department off into a fire protection district. This need, according to the presentation, is driven by two factors: the city’s need for additional revenue, and the fire department’s anticipated retention problem. We’ll discuss the second topic later.

It is important to realize that the fire department is a department of the city. The fire chief, like every other department head, reports to the city manager, who serves at the pleasure of city council. So when the fire chief makes a presentation to city council suggesting that spinning off the fire department is a way to give the council more money to “help solve the budget crisis” he didn’t dream up that idea while he was playing the back nine at Norwood Hills. Rather, the council found a big budget line which they can easily get rid of, and Church Street told the fire department to get it done. So let’s be very clear of one thing: I don’t blame the fire department for what is being proposed.

So let’s look at the veracity of this claim. In the presentation, we’re faced with this alarming graph:

It hopes to leave the viewer with the impression that we’re heading rapidly down, and that urgent action is needed to rescue us. But this graph only includes the general fund, and covers a carefully chosen number of years. Let’s look at total city revenue, over a broader range of years. We created this graph using city budgets, obtained from the city’s website.

From the larger perspective, things don’t look so urgent or alarming. City revenue has had its ups and downs. And based upon past patterns, and every economic forecast I’ve heard for this year, the current downward trend will likely reverse this year.

Now, one might also be concerned about the general fund balance. That balance is our “rainy day fund”, assets to keep us going during years when revenue is lower than expected. In 2019, the most recent year for which we have actual figures, the general fund balance went from $4.5 million at the start of the fiscal year, to $5.1 million at the end. Yes, it increased by more than half a million dollars. Now, the 2021 budget forecasts a drop of $900,000 in the general fund for 2020, and budgets a $500,000 drop in the budget for 2021. That happens for two reasons: They anticipate a continuing drop in revenue, and plan to spend more each year than they did in 2019.

So how do we solve this problem? Let’s start by being honest about the magnitude and source of the problem. First of all, if the economy surges as every indicator says it will, the doom and gloom predictions are wrong. Will Ferguson receive any of the “aid to state and local governments” that Washington is dishing out? That will push us further in the right direction. And ultimately, council will have to make decisions.

Honestly, based upon the services we’ve received for the past couple of years, there ought to be a bunch of money sitting around somewhere. Streets are crumbling to the point where you can see the original concrete under the asphalt. Traffic enforcement has completely ceased, because the police department is greatly understaffed. Mowing and maintenance of parks has decreased, and mowing of vacant properties rarely happens at all. The houses on the demolition list from 2019 have still not been removed.

Ultimately, the blame for these problems problem is shared by the city manager, who has failed to serve as an effective CEO of this failing organization, and the councils which have failed to employ a successful city manager. This isn’t a city government stretching to make the most out of a shrinking stream of money, it’s a government doing less every year, with a revenue stream that is relatively stable. That, and not the structure of our wonderful fire department, is the problem.