Budget opacity and arcanity

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Did you see this recent comment by Peter Crownfield on a recent post ?

“Municipal budget books seem to be designed to make things opaque or difficult to understand. . . . Do you suppose keeping things arcane [good SAT word, Peter] is one reason why it is done the way it is?”

Exactly.

Gadfly’s been meaning to hatch one of his beautiful (!) “Modest Proposals” on this very subject.

Gadfly was a writing teacher for a hundred years.

One of the first principles of good writing is to identify your audience.

“Who is your audience?” Gadfly would intone pregnantly and poignantly.

The audience determines your approach, your tone of voice, your writing strategies — everything.

The 2020 budget is an accounting document for accountants — it seems.

2020 Proposed Budget

It is not written for the public. It is not public-friendly.

It does not encourage public knowledge, participation, conversation.

It does not invite public engagement.

Most of what the general public sees as it meets and then thumbs through the budget is off-putting.

Most should be in an appendix in a document aimed at the general public.

Gadfly is writing in haste here (grandkids’ soccer!!!), but what he’s been thinking about is a document (online) that begins with a visual of the City organizational chart.

CITYORGN Oct 22 2019

An easily understandable map of City structure.

And then each block would have linked to it a budget “narrative.”

Some of the info narrative for each block is already in the current budget book.

For instance, go to p. 72 in 2020 Proposed Budget:  Planning and Zoning.

There you will find the “Bureau Description,” “Goals and Objectives,” and “Prior Year Achievements.”

Good.

Gadfly would add such categories as “This Year’s Goals” and “Projects Deferred” (what we’d do if we had more money), and “Impact on This Year’s Budget.”

Something like that.

Foreground this concise “narrative.”

Same for each block in the organizational chart.

Then — most importantly — the whole document introduced by an “Executive Summary” or an “Overview”: general state of revenue — up, down? general state of expenses — up, down? what factors? what priorities? what drivers? what pressures? what left on the cutting room floor? What’s the goal of the budget? What were the tough choices? What the heartaches? What problem areas resolved? Where the cracks? Where the hot spots?

A snapshot. A frame. A context. An introduction.

One substantial paragraph. One page.

Could say more (and more coherently) but gotta run.

Remind me to dress warmly.

The 2020 budget: we are in Council’s hands

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One of the prompts that candidates for Council in the May primary responded to (high-five again!) for Gadfly was “Talk about budgets and the budgeting process, arguably the most important power and responsibility that City Council has.”

Thus Gadfly has statements from last May by Councilpersons Colon, Reynolds, Van Wirt, and Crampsie Smith but not Callahan, Negron, and Waldron.

Though we don’t have complete Council voices, and though these statements are not directly related to the 2020 budget now in front of us, it seems pertinent to bring these statements back into view as Council is now faced with a real budget and a real decision.

Gadfly budget statements

Gadfly encourages you to review these statements again as we enter budget season.

We are in Council’s hands.

The reason that Gadfly is proposing a “Perspectives on the Budget” thread (as described in the last post) and looking for volunteers is to have an eye on and a voice in the upcoming deliberations and decisions.

Of course, make your views known to Council members. Contact info can be found on the Gadfly sidebar. And there will soon be a link to the budget draft itself there.

But Gadfly hopes we will have people willing to share those views with the wider community here.

“Good conversation builds community.”

A proposal, an invitation: “Perspectives on the Budget”

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“A man must know his limitations”
Henry James
19th century American writer

2020 Proposed Budget

Mayor Donchez’s 2020 Budget Address

City Council calendar of budget meetings with agendas

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the City budget.

Budgets are a stark statement of a city’s values and direction.

We Gadflyers should have some conversation about the budget.

The City budget is 300 pages long and best digested in small bites.

Gadfly, who knows 9 uses of the comma, is no budget sherpa.

Gadfly knows his limitations.

But Gadfly — like many of you — would like to know what he should see in the budget, what he should be thinking about, how he should feel about it.

So here are two proposals for a series of posts under the broad title of “Perspectives on the Budget”:

1) Gadfly would love to have 3-5 people commit to give us their perspectives on the budget as a whole — people with different views, different angles, different backgrounds, different philosophies. What does it look like from where you sit? Such a post might even but not necessarily comment on the nature and history of budgeting in Bethlehem. Gadfly is thinking of something fairly substantial. Maybe 500-word range. But the prof would take less. Could Gadfly have some volunteers? Or suggestions for people whom he should approach?

2) There are four budget hearings with specific agendas (see the calendar link above): November 12, November 13, November 21, and December 9. The meetings will be televised. Gadfly would love to have any number of people commit to attending or viewing at least one of those meetings on specific sections of the budget and post their perspectives, however short and fragmentary and tentative and subjective. Could we have “correspondents” for each meeting? Gadfly’s ready to take names of volunteers.

Gadfly is sure that in the budget and in the budget hearings there will be things we like, things we don’t, things we understand, things we don’t, things that excite us, things that bore us.

But Gadfly’s main purpose is information, participation, education.

Let’s try to get inside this budget process a bit.

Let’s see the City and Council operating at their highest level of responsibility.

And in doing so perhaps we’ll see the Gadfly operating at its highest level of utility.

Gadfly awaits.

Bethlehem’s Climate Action Plan re-budgeted

logo The latest in a series of posts relating to the environment, Bethlehem’s Climate
Action Plan, and Bethlehem’s Environmental Advisory Council logo

Before we get to the CAP, salute to climate action warrior and Gadfly follower Christine!

Martha Christine, “Let’s follow lead of young people on climate change.” Morning Call, November 7, 2019.

  • We have some amazing young people in the Lehigh Valley. Last week I joined more than two dozen informed and engaged Lehigh University students, along with a handful of community members, to comment on the Global Youth Climate Action Declaration.
  • The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763) is one solution gaining bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. It has 68 sponsors, including Congresswoman Susan Wild. It’s designed to cut carbon emissions by collecting a fee from fossil fuel companies and returning funds to households through monthly dividend checks. It’s good for people, good for the economy and good for the climate.

Gadfly followers have been wondering what happened to the plan to hire a consultant to write a local Climate Action Plan before the end of 2019.

Nicole Radzievich’s Morning Call story on the 2020 budget contains the following:

“The budget reflects the city’s strong financial position, and I’m excited that the administration has funded my request for the Climate Action Plan,” said Councilman J. William Reynolds, who attended the event.

The city had planned to hire a consultant to develop a blueprint for the city to reduce its carbon footprint, but the the $30,000 the city allocated for it fell about $50,000 short of what was needed.

The high price of consultancy. Now we know!

It’s Saturday, November 9, do you know where your local Climate Action Plan is?

Mayor Donchez: “For 2020, I am proposing a no tax increase budget” (but . . .)

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MAYOR DONCHEZ’S 2020 BUDGET ADDRESS

2020 Proposed Budget

Budget hearings will take place 6PM, Town Hall, November 12, November 13, November 21, and December 9. These hearings will be televised. First reading of the budget will be November 19, the second December 17.

Key points in the Mayor’s address:

  • On October 21st, S&P affirmed Bethlehem’s A+ stable bond rating.
  • For 2020, I am proposing a no tax increase budget.

Highlights of the Mayor’s address:

  • Martin Tower
  • Sands > Wind Creek
  • 9-1-1 > Bethlehem Service Center
  • Memorial Pool
  • Bethlehem Golf Club
  • New City web site
  • Balanced budget
  • Capital projects without increased debt
  • Public safety improvements
  • Roads
  • Rodgers St. facility
  • Climate Action Plan
  • Census

Two new programs:

  • Enhancements to our Housing Inspections Program
  • Stormwater Pollution and Flood Prevention Program***

“Bethlehem is undergoing transitions all over the City. Whether it be facilities, equipment, technology, or programming, we are planning, adapting, and investing to meet the needs of our growing population. We are a city with a rich and proud history, and our future is very bright. Bethlehem will continue to be the jewel of the Lehigh Valley.”

—–

*** The news stories indicate a new storm water fee of approx $50-$60/homeowner.

Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem budget: No tax hike, but property owners may still pay more.” Morning Call, November 8, 2019.

But what is proposed to be added is a new storm water fee that would be assessed on every property based on impervious coverage like driveways, parking lots and building foundations. That fee would be imposed not only on homeowners and businesses, but also on nonprofits like colleges, churches and hospitals — which often don’t pay real estate tax bill but own quite a bit of land.

Officials are still working on the amount of the fee. For residential properties, the city is looking at instituting a flat fee based on the average impervious coverage of a residential property. Officials estimate it will be in the neighborhood of $50 annually for residential owners. The fee be implemented July 1, meaning only half would need to be paid next year.

Sara Satullo, “Bethlehem pitching another no tax increase budget, but a new fee is coming.” lehighvalleylive.com, November 8, 2019.

While the budget includes no new tax increase, on July 1 the city will start charging a new stormwater fee to comply with a federal mandate to cut pollution in stormwater to protect Bethlehem’s waterways. Easton and Allentown already have enacted fees.

City Council passes resolution supporting Medicare for All Act of 2019

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The resolution to support the Medicare for All Act was one of the reasons Town Hall was packed for the City Council meeting last Wednesday night. Gadfly will spend 2-3 posts providing an overview of this resolution, which passed unanimously.

“This resolution is not about answering every question about how these programs are going to work. . . . We can’t continue to say people aren’t ready for a conversation. . . . This is a vote about understanding the magnitude of the issue, it’s a vote about showing the courage about where we’re going to go. . . . We need these conversations. . . . It’s about showing not just our leaders in Washington but also our community. . . . It’s about who we are as a city, about who we want to be, and about how we want to serve the citizens of Bethlehem.”

Councilman Reynolds, prime mover of the resolution
along with Councilman Colon

Medicare

—–

Richard Master, speaking for citizens’ groups in support of the resolution

to be continued . . .

Bethlehem Food Co-Op: enthusiasm for the project but concerns about financing

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Barbara Diamond enjoys retirement as Lehigh University Director of Foundation Relations by engaging in various activities and organizations hopefully for the betterment of the community. Her particular interests at the moment are preventing gun violence, local government ethics reform, and Bethlehem Democratic Committee work.

Dear Gadfly,

I have been following the recent commentary about the BFC. Many thanks to you for your research and Dana for his expertise to help us consider whether using these important grant programs are appropriate, especially in the amount proposed, for this purpose.

I am also a BFC member; I believe I was #297 or 298 at a time when the goal was 300 members to get off the ground. That was about 3 years ago. I understand that such a major endeavor takes more capital than originally expected.

I remain enthusiastic about the project, but I also have concerns about financing the project with such a large grant from those programs. Is the BFC the highest and best use of those precious community development funds? As you have proposed, the city should provide more information about why it selected this program for a grant of this significant amount.

I appreciate Kathy Fox’s comment about some of the good things the BFC is doing in the community and finding in their By-laws that they are a non-profit is reassuring.

I think it would be further reassuring if the public and the Council could learn from the city and/or the BFC about how the $200,000 + funds collected from the public so far have been deployed, as well as the $50,000 grant from the city. A bit of transparency would help.

Dana’s suggestion that the BFC consider a low-interest loan from the DCED seems like a good way to go too.

Barbara