According to the city’s draft budget, a great deal more money is expected in the city’s coffers. Sales tax is budgeted to be nearly 7% higher than last year. Utility taxes are expected to increase by more than $200,000. Property taxes are expected to drop slightly, but overall, the city will take in nearly two million dollars more than they did in 2021.
At the same time, the city is asking for an enormous increase in spending. For this fiscal year, the city forecasts a surplus of nearly $4 million. Last year, we had a surplus of $3.5 million. But in the current budget, they are predicting a deficit of $5.4 million. And it is in the shadow of what some might call a manufactured crisis that the city council comes to the residents asking for yet another tax increase, Proposition U.
It is worth noting that the city is in a bit of a financial scandal at the moment. We passed an economic development sales tax in 2016, the proceeds of which were supposed to pass through a commission, and be spend on authorized projects. The city did not appoint a commission, the council diverted the money, and we must now beg the state of Missouri for mercy, as we have been violating state law for nearly six years. Questions about how that money was spent remain unanswered.
It is also worth noting that our city has no finance director. As a result, our city manager, who is already working endless hours in the capacity for which he was hired, is now our acting finance director. The council will start work on the annual budget on Thursday. It is more than a little concerning that we are doing so without a full time finance director.
Another matter which remains incomplete is putting the city through an audit. When he started, Mr. Osterberg indicated that he believed we should have a forensic audit completed. Given the turnover of city managers and finance directors, the cloud over the city’s finances caused by the departure of Jeff Blume first from the finance position, and later from the position of acting city manager, and the verified unlawful spending of EDST funds, this seems prudent. But an audit has not been done, so we have no idea whether there are big problems. Others have suggested bringing in the state auditor, which also seems wise.
Given the recognized impropriety, residents of every stripe recognize that there is much work which needs to be done to restore public trust in the fiscal management of this city. At last night’s council meeting, we saw something as rare as a two headed unicorn: Nick Kasoff and Annette Jenkins spoke in public comment, and were in complete agreement: Now is not the time to ask residents for more money. Proposition U will be precisely that: While state law dictates that it is not called a tax increase, residents will be paying a higher tax on everything they purchase through Amazon, Etsy, and other online sources.
Does the city need more money? We have no idea, and between poor management and lack of transparency, there’s no way to tell. But we are certain of this: Until the city takes the necessary steps to provide transparency and restore public trust, there should be no tax increases of any kind. The city is going to engage in the usual “the sky is falling” rhetoric in an attempt to frighten you into voting in favor of this tax. But at this point, council is no different than the guy panhandling at the bottom of a highway ramp: proclaiming a need, but providing no means by which you can verify his legitimacy. If you have a heart, you’ll slide a few bucks to a panhandler once in a while. But when our elected officials come at us like panhandlers, we must give them the tough love that our city government needs. Until the many financial issues are resolved, and a legitimate need is demonstrated, no more money.