The Case for the Proposed Budget
Revised statement from the budget work session on Council Priorities, by Suzanne Ludlow, City Manager.
Last year, the primary focus of the FY 18 budget was to finalize how we would utilize bond funding for the Library and the two major street projects. Those projects are proceeding and will have a strong positive impact on the City of Takoma Park in the future.
Last year, I did not propose an increase in staff in the FY 18 budget.
As an extremely fiscally conservative person, I hesitate to add staff. As a small staff, we pride ourselves on wearing multiple hats, finding savings where we can, and working our butts off. We reorganize when possible, we shift staff to address new priorities, and we take advantage of new technologies that can add efficiencies to our work. In the budget, there are examples of each of these. For example:
- In the Recreation Department, the organizational structure changes from year to year to meet Council Priorities, and staff moves away from less popular programs and towards programs that meet new needs or interests;
- The Housing and Community Development Department is making technology improvements that will allow housing staff to spend less time on administrative duties and more time meeting with tenants and landlords on site;
- The Public Works Department is taking advantage of the retirement of the City Gardener to combine two small divisions to promote more cooperative attention to vegetation management and to provide some additional support to the Urban Forest Manager.
As the preparation for FY 19 was being done, and as departments assessed their needs and resources, it became clear to me that we would need to add staff in order to manage our ongoing workload, upcoming projects, and address Council Priorities. While I believe adding staff is necessary, it is also concerning to me because staff is an ongoing commitment and personnel costs tend to rise each year.
In the budget public hearing and at the budget open house, we received recommendations to do cross-training and desk audits before adding staff. We have. We do cross-training where we can and we assess our positions and work flow periodically, particularly before the proposed budget is prepared. This is how we have been able to keep our City staff at a small size for the work we do. I have never seen another municipality that does as much as we do with as few employees.
When it comes to professional positions, however, cross-training has its limits. A planner can’t answer health insurance questions, the IT manager doesn’t develop economic development strategies, etc. For most of our professional positions, we have only one or two people – often a higher level position and a person newer to the field. Each of them has a full load of responsibilities and projects they are balancing. When one must be out of the office, much work must be put on hold.
The main reason I feel we need to add positions this year is that the base workload has increased substantially in a couple of areas and will remain at a high level for the foreseeable future.
This isn’t a case of the Council Priorities calling for a particular project where a consultant or contractor could be hired just in FY 19 to do the project. Instead, the Council Priorities are more in the nature of how the Council wishes to see us address the new economic and community environment we are facing.
So, we aim to: Steer, rather than React, to development
And: to Build Public Safety with the community, rather than just Respond to crimes
We absolutely need the two economic development positions and Chief DeVaul needs additional staff to change the structure of the police department over time, beginning especially with the Community Policing position.
Regarding the proposed economic development positions, the Purple Line is under construction and small business outreach and assistance will be needed for those along University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue during this time. This is the area of our largest commercial tax base. We will be beginning to implement the recommendations of the Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plans; these actions will help strengthen the City’s economic health and will, over time, reduce the tax burden on residential property owners. I have resisted adding economic development staff for several years, but now is the time. The pressure is there. If we don’t help steer, the private sector will do as it pleases. We cannot rely on the private sector to craft and maintain the special character and diversity of Takoma Park – it will take work on our part.
Regarding the Police Department positions, Chief DeVaul has been assessing the organization and operation of the Department since he began with the City on January 2. In reviewing the structure, he felt there was a need for four new positions. In working with his staff and reassigning responsibilities, he was able to reduce the need to two new positions: one that would coordinate Community Policing activities and a new Lieutenant position that would oversee the patrol unit of four sergeants and 24 officers. These two new positions would be promotional opportunities from within the Department and so two new officer positions would be needed to fill those vacated positions. The two new positions would allow the Department to help assume added administrative duties if the Department pursued accreditation and will provide flexibility to meet the new State law requirements for police officers in schools.
Finally, from a management perspective, we cannot function well as an organization without added depth in the Human Resources division. HR has been understaffed for a long time, and I am looking to them to help in our efforts of staff training, coordination of evaluations, police promotion processes, internal racial equity training, and other areas of staff support. Over the past few years, we have been shifting some responsibilities from departments to HR to allow managers to focus on their areas of professional expertise and to ensure consistency in how personnel matters are handled. Recruitment, training, and police promotional processes used to be primarily handled by departments. HR is better suited to handle these activities, but there are just two permanent employees, and that is not sufficient for the heavy workload.
I would not propose new positions for the City of Takoma Park if I felt the City could not afford them in the coming years. I looked at the ongoing costs and the ongoing expected revenue, and I believe the expenses to be manageable. It is, however, why I proposed a small increase in the tax rate for FY 19.
I was reluctant to propose a tax increase as I am very sympathetic to Takoma Park taxpayers, and recognize that property values have continued to increase and there are new rules concerning tax deductions. Nevertheless, I feel that the proposed budget protects the City and advances the Council Priorities. I also feel that not adding staff or postponing adding staff will have a negative impact on the ability for us to provide the services the Council and residents expect.
Last year, the Council cut the tax rate to below the Constant Yield amount, meaning that expected revenue was less than the year before. The tax rate increase that I am proposing will cost the average homeowner of a $400,000 house that increased in assessment value by 10% $259 for FY 19. That’s about $22 per month additional in an escrow payment for Takoma Park taxes. That amount, however, also helps fund the City’s tax credit programs, program scholarships and rent stabilization programs that allow lower-income residents to remain in Takoma Park and participate in community activities as equals.
As we go forward and make progress in economic development activities and, we hope, are successful in increasing the tax duplication payments from Montgomery County, the burden on residential property owners should lessen while we keep the community we are proud of. If we roll back taxes and the programs they fund now, we may lose the community we deeply value.
There is much to do and much at stake. The Council now must make the decisions about how to move Takoma Park forward.
The next Public Hearing on the proposed budget is Wednesday, April 25 at 6:30 pm. Child care will be provided by the Recreation Department. Written comments can be emailed to Clerk@takomaparkmd.gov.
We look forward to hearing from you about your vision for Takoma Park and the appropriate budget to make that vision a reality.