July 11, 2021
Elected Officials Must Serve
By: Pocatello City Council Member Chris Stevens
At the local level at least, elections and governance must be based on common sense issues that directly impact our lives. Government exists solely for the benefit of the citizens. We can argue about exactly what serving the public looks like, but one would hope we can all agree government exists to benefit the People. Virtually all government money comes from taxes and fees – property taxes, sales taxes, license plate fees, fuel taxes, state and federal income taxes, etc. Without the People, government cannot exist.
While we wrangle over the latest from Washington, D.C., local elected officials shirk their duty to serve the people of Pocatello. They refuse/fail to create long-range plans that include citizen input so we know where we are trying to go as a community and allocate our finite dollars accordingly. They avoid critical discussions about potential reasonable ways to curtail the number of city employees. They refuse to dig deep into our operational and organizational structures and procedures. They refuse to acknowledge that city wages and benefits are among the best in the city while many of our citizens struggle to make ends meet even though they work hard – often at multiple jobs for low wages and no benefits – or exist on fixed incomes after long work lives that may not have afforded them generous pensions. They make minimal to no effort to reach out to the taxpayers who pay their salaries and benefits and resent questions and statements that attempt to include the taxpayers as partners in the city budgets.
Questions are critical to both understanding and transparency. There are two basic reasons for conscientious council members to ask questions in council meetings. One is to gather important information to make sound decisions and deepen council understanding of how our city works. The other is to make information transparent to the public by getting it into the comprehensive public record of the meeting – the video.
In no arena is this more critical than budgeting. If our income as a city does not equal or exceed our spending, we will have a budget problem. For the past eleven years, our city has assumed the taxpayer piggybank would just sit quietly and pony up for whatever the mayor and council wanted. Think back to the new logo and the proposed $90,000 for branding or the recent Council and Mayor raises. Recall the 2021 one-time bonuses for city employees as many citizens were furloughed or let go due to Covid business downturns. It is time for the ostriches to take their heads out of the sand and understand Pocatello city government is at a crossroads in terms of money and we need to start doing right by our citizens.
We have reached a point where it can no longer be assumed that even if the city takes the maximum property tax amount allowed by law, we will be able to maintain our current staffing and spending levels – not that we necessarily should, of course.
We have a divided City Council. We have three council members lobbying to consider the citizens’ financial health as we make spending decisions. We have three Council members and a mayor arguing that that since “everything we do is for the benefit of our citizens”, we should spend quite freely. Those same three council members and the mayor seem to find questions that attempt to drill down into the rather obscure workings of the city budget tantamount to treason.
Some council members and the mayor frequently prefer to focus on the levy rate instead of the actual budget dollars being taken from property owners. In reality, the levy rate is merely the formula that determines how much a property owner pays per $1,000 of taxable value after any mitigating reductions are applied. Current property tax reductions include circuit breaker, homeowner’s exemptions, and one-time property tax breaks passed by the Idaho State legislature.
In reality, the levy rate can fall and what an individual pays in property tax can rise if the assessed value of the property increases more than the levy rate falls. For example, if a property is worth $1,000 and the levy rate is $10 per thousand, the homeowner pays $10 in property tax. However, if the property is suddenly worth $2,000 and the levy falls to $9 per thousand, the homeowner now pays $18 even though the levy rate has fallen.
When property taxes are going up but the levy rate is falling (and many homeowners are paying higher property taxes as in the example above) irresponsible elected officials chose to focus attention on the lower levy rate and ignore the increased tax ask. The two are interlinked, but at the end of the day, what matters is how deeply our city has its hand in your pocket.
I believe the People are part of the equation when determining budgets and will continue to stand for fact-based financial discussions and fiscally responsible budgets. Virtually everyone will be upset/disappointed eventually about some decision I make. If positions were reversed, I would eventually be likewise upset. That no two people will agree on everything 100% of the time is inevitable unless one or both are dishonest. The only way to avoid upsetting some of the people some of the time is to never stand up for anything and avoid taking responsibility.
At the end of the day, I will continue to ask questions I believe need to be answered. I will not be a rubber stamp for anyone. I will continue to focus on issues that impact our city residents. I will not be bullied into silence. I will take responsibility for my successes and my failures. I will talk with anyone who wants to talk to me.