Your Tax Dollars at Work

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Council members are now pushing two large tax increases. We’ve had several tax increases already. Are there places we could save money, continuing to provide city services without demanding more from residents? We found a few in the latest budget proposal. It’s a 439 page document, so we’ve done the work for you. This is just the result of one pass through the budget, on items they separately disclosed. We are confident that a council appointed fiscal responsibility committee, with the authority to look at city finance records, could quickly find a million dollars in savings.

Item 1: Stimulus funding.

Before we get to spending, a couple of quick points about revenue. First, the city will receive millions of dollars in extra funds due to federal stimulus programs. Rather than continuing baseline spending, the city ought to be reducing spending now, and building reserves for the future.

Item 2: Sales tax.

The city claims there is a sales tax shortfall due to covid. In fact, there was one bad quarter, followed by one boom quarter. Since Ferguson is a pool city, county proposition P revenue is a perfect proxy for sales tax revenue. Sales tax collections starting with the covid shutdown are at 98% of the level they were for the period starting in January 2018, the beginning of proposition P reporting. Bottom line: There is no sales tax crisis.

Item 3: Cell phones.

Now, we get into the good part: spending. And we’ll start with something that we’re all familiar with, our monthly cell phone bill. Let’s start by establishing how much cell phone service should cost. The answer is $25 a month. Our family has had this service for years. We’ve never had an issue.

So what is the city paying for cell phone service?

There is a wide variation in cost, and some departments are including hardware purchases in this line item. But the going rate seems to be between $40 and $50. The IT department also has a hotspot included in their line item, which should cost $50. We are presently spending $14,600 on cell phones. We should be able to cut that by 40%, for a savings of nearly $6,000.

Item 4: Phone service.

What we’re spending: Over $90,000 a year.

These days, the way to do phones is using 3CX, a cloud based virtual phone system. It’s easy to manage, offers transparent ringing to cell phones and inbound fax to pdf, and a host of other nifty features. Internal extensions are free, pricing is based upon number of concurrent external calls. One provider, VoxTandem, offers 48 concurrent calls with 50 local phone numbers for $18,750 a year. Not only is this far beyond the city’s current usage, the ability to have your office phone also ring to your cell eliminates the need to hand out your cell number. Inbound faxes arrive by pdf in the recipient’s email. So we would get more, for 20% of what we are now spending.

Item 5: “Meeting cost”

Stop scheduling work sessions during meals. Stop going to government oriented social events. I know that Valley Industries is a nice charity, but city government doesn’t exist to funnel our tax dollars to charities they select. If the mayor wants to attend, use campaign funds to make a contribution. Zero this fluff out. Savings: $5,000.

Item 6: Video of council meetings

We spend $5,000 on “web streaming services” for our city council meetings, and an additional $1,850 on a videographer. Minot, a city in North Dakota that is several times the size of Ferguson, is one of many cities that puts their council meetings on YouTube, for free. IT staff can show the city clerk and assistant city manager how to plug in the video camera. Savings: $6,850.

Item 7: Merchant fees.

The city accepts credit cards in court, public works, and at the rec center. Fees on merchant accounts include monthly, per transaction, and amount based fees. They vary widely. Substantial savings are likely available by diligently shopping the city’s card business. And nobody is paying $60 a month to rent a credit card machine. Savings here are potentially enormous.

Item 8: Employee relations.

There are probably still a few large, very profitable corporations which have catered employee events. For the most part, that’s no longer a thing. What would you call a company that was broke, unable to perform basic services for their customers, and was still spending thousands of dollars on these things? Mismanaged? Irresponsible? Bankrupt? Savings: $9,500.

Item 9: publicsalary.com

It’s hard to say what the point is of this expenditure. There are just 20 municipalities in St. Louis county, and a total of 22 in the entire state, that subscribe to this service, which allows you to “Share, compare, and manage your wages and benefits online.” Savings: $400.

Item 10: City website

This isn’t paying somebody to maintain the site, it appears to be a license or hosting fee for the site itself. Way overpriced. Savings: $10,000.

Item 11: Copiers

Copiers are SO 1990s. Do we really need all of them? Could somebody look at what we’re using them for, and find some we could eliminate?

Item 12: Bank fees

The city keeps a lot of money in the bank. We should shop our banking business and get the best deal. It might not be the one down the street, and it doesn’t really matter, because nobody goes to the bank anymore anyway.

Item 13: Media consulting

Zero that out. Savings: $33,000.

Item 14: Flowers

We’re broke? No more flowers. Savings: $650.

Item 15: Office supplies

Just one example here – Information Technology is a 2 person department. How are they spending $1,000 on office supplies? This is a question for every department in the city.

And while we’re picking on IT, $500 in “small hand tools”?

Item 16: Payroll processing

ADP doesn’t publish prices on their website. But based upon comments by others, we could save about $9,000.

Item 17: Planning department license fees

CoStar is a commercial real estate database. ESRI is GIS mapping software. Are either of these needed for the city to do the tiny amount of economic development work that we’re doing?

Smartsheet is enterprise work collaboration software. The planning department has 2 employees. Whiteboard, Walmart, $20.

Savings: $7,580.

Item 18: Police bicycles

As a cyclist, I love this. But when? Where? It just isn’t happening.

Item 19: Lake dye

No, this isn’t a joke. Update: We are informed that lake dye is a method of algae control. If that’s the purpose here, the expense should note that it is for algae control, and not “4th of July.”

Item 20: Patrol rifles

“We only have 8 rifles and need to expand to 16 rifles so we can have an adequate deployment of patrol rifles on the street at all times ready to respond to any dangerous situation that arises.” In the history of our department, how many times have we used even 8 of them at the same time? If we have a situation so serious that it requires 8 officers with rifles, we’re calling in county for help.

And because we’re getting more rifles, we now also need new gun racks for the cars.

Item 21: Failed retaining wall

A few years back, the city contracted to have a sidewalk on January, across from J-W Park. This involved putting in a retaining wall, which has collapsed into the yard of the residence adjoining it. While we certainly have a responsibility to abate the damage to the residence, and to leave it in a safe state, if the design or construction was faulty on this project, why isn’t the contractor paying for it? And if the city is stuck with the bill, one contractor familiar with the situation tells us this is double what it ought to cost.