June 28, 2021
If you have been following the several articles written by Councilor Stevens and now joined by Lydia Noble recently, you have read their interpretation of the last few meetings of the Pocatello City Council. What hasn’t been disclosed by them to date is the fact that both have taken the first step toward entering the city election this fall. Stevens has filed a C-1 report with the Idaho Secretary of State ‘s office to begin collecting and spending funds for the office of Mayor. Noble has filed the same report for a seat on the Council, which seat doesn’t have to be disclosed until the official filing dates between August 23 and September 3. I find it very curious that they have chosen to not disclose this fact from voters during their diatribes despite their continuous comments about full disclosure and transparency.
Stevens has been critical of Mayor Blad and most of the city staff during her term on the council. She appears certain they are incompetent and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. And yet, clean water runs from my faucets, my toilets flush, the streets are in great condition, my trash is picked up every week, the Portneuf River is cleaner and more user friendly than I can remember, our police and fire departments respond very quickly with less manpower than the national average, the Parks and Recreation department manages the parks, zoo, cemetery, and recreational programs for all ages of citizens on much less than the national average budget, the library is booming with online and in-person patrons, our airport attracts flyers from all over the region because of the convenience and lower cost flights, and the entire city benefits from the services of excellent legal, engineering, planning, fleet services, and administration personnel. Is the city perfect? No, and it never will be.
A friend who recently retired from public service after 50 years, told me recently that a city is never done. It can always be improved by managing resources and trying to anticipate resident’s future demands and desires. The Council is currently engaged in budgeting for the 2022 fiscal year that begins October 1. Within that budget must be sufficient funds to pay the salaries of the employees and provide operating funds for existing infrastructure and any that might need replacement or repair. That will probably mean a property tax ask of 30-31 million dollars, but it’s a bit early to make an accurate prognostication. The balance of the budget will come from fees, grants and state revenue distribution. Our department heads have been very frugal this year in keeping capital requests to a bare minimum. As the city grows, the property tax base also grows and that helps to spread the cost of city services over a larger base. But with that development and growth comes a need to provide planning, engineering, building inspection, environmental impact review, and the need to expand the services I listed in the last paragraph to a larger population.
One of the standards for development of Idaho municipal budgets is the budget manual produced each year by the Association of Idaho Cities, AIC. After 74 years of operation, AIC has a good handle on most of the processes of municipalities. On page 4 of the 2022 manual AIC discusses the difference in the roles of the executive/administrative branch of municipal government and the legislative/policy making branch. Bray, Stevens, Ortega and now Noble seem to have lost sight of this important difference. The Mayor and the CFO, if we still had one after they have driven two out of the city in the past year, are the executive branch of the budgeting process. The Council has the legislative/policymaking role. Let me quote from the manual. “It is easy for councilors to become engrossed in evaluating the minutiae of budgetary line-items. Budgeting micromanagement wastes valuable time and distracts attention from the most important questions that must be answered in the budgeting process.” It isn’t up to the department heads to negotiate the needs of the city among themselves. It is their job to present their individual department needs and the Council to make the hard decisions on priorities. Stevens disagrees, saying the department heads should meet to determine priorities for the entire city. Sounds like a line from Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Sorry Chris, but that’s not how it worked in my business experience. I told my employer what I needed to accomplish my tasks for the next year and if I didn’t get all I asked for, figured how to do as much as I could with the personnel and resources available.
If the city budget is cut, it is will be up to citizens to tell the Council at the budget hearing what services they are willing to do without or to a lesser degree. Should we close Zoo Idaho, Ross Park, library, or the Recreation Center or reduce their hours? Should we pare back the police force, or the fire department? Stop inspecting new construction to determine the use of proper building materials and safety? Stop sealing streets or plowing snow? Only replace sewer and water lines when they fail? None of those are palatable solutions and some would require more expensive solutions than regular maintenance.
In her column on June 20th in the Idaho State Journal, Noble expounded the idea that anyone who isn’t constantly dominating the conversation during Council meeting doesn’t belong on the Council because they are unproductive. I guess she has never heard of the one mouth and two ears concept of learning. Even after 3 and a half years on the Council, I learn something every session, and you can’t learn if you are constantly dominating the discussion with long monologues that state opinions but don’t clarify or contribute to the discussion. Mark Twain said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
Let me close by saying the budget process at the city isn’t perfect, but if Stevens, Ortega and Bray would listen to city department heads and how they view their needs to maintain and meet the growing needs of the city, this could be a very simple overall process. Unfortunately, the 2020 Idaho Legislature complicated the process with HB389. The property tax policy bureau chief of the Idaho State Tax Commission, Alan Dornfest, presented at the final day of the AIC annual meeting and told attendees deadlines for setting a budget, publishing it, holding a hearing, finalizing a budget, and sending the L2 form to Bannock and Power(the airport) counties, complicated by the process of complying with the new law assures every local government entity will not know their final levy assessment until after the budget deadlines have passed. Thank you, Idaho State legislators, for accomplishing nothing but complicating the process.
Pocatello City Councilor