“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein

The City of Gainesville faces severe fiscal challenges in the coming years, with revenues forecasted to greatly trail expenses; most of the (relatively) “easy” fixes already have been taken. If the City is to remain solvent without significantly increasing taxes or imposing new fees, then it must embrace a new willingness to take steps that until now have been considered off the table.

There are areas of the City budget that require political courage to cut, either because they often have small but well-organized and vocal supporters, or because it would be politically incorrect, or because of the highly emotional impact of cuts even if they are logical and prudent.

In order to start the ball rolling and to give political cover, I’m suggesting several “sacred cows” to put on the budgetary chopping block. In the interest of fairness, I’ll start with one that benefits me.

1. Dissolve the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA): These are the guys who are building the much-criticized office building on N.W. 5th Avenue at a time when vacant office space all around the City is going begging. While the City probably could unilaterally reduce the percentage of the property tax diverted to the CRA, dissolving the agency would most likely require legislative approval.

Nevertheless, if the City and County Commissions requested it of the local legislative delegation, most “special bills” (bills affecting only the districts of the legislators requesting) sail through the state legislature. I own substantial property in the CRA districts and my properties benefit meaningfully from the special infrastructure spending the CRA does.

But as long as the City is willing to cut across the board, I’m willing to take the hit along with everyone else. The City is reluctant to dissolve the CRA because 60 percent of the property tax revenue freed up would go to the County. Yet to the taxpayers, it’s all taxes coming out of their pockets.

2. Eliminate the City’s Affirmative Action Department as a charter level office, retaining affirmative action as principle and policy for the HR department. This is highly un-politically correct and therefore will never happen.

3. Reduce the City Commission from Seven Back to Five Commissioners: Each City Commissioner requires staff support and office space. To a certain extent, the more Commissioners the citizens must remember and keep track of, the more diffuse the accountability. Can you name all 7 Commissioners? Few citizens can!

4. Eliminate the Mounted Police Patrols and the Air Unit: Often such projects are said to be funded by forfeitures and fines, but money is money and simply getting it from a different bucket doesn’t make it free. “But that is a different bucket” is a common governmental response to why money is being cut in one area yet not another. Go up the chain high enough and it all comes from same bucket.

5. Pensions: Put all new hires into 401(k) plans like the rest of us, cut back any way contractually possible on existing plans. Pensions are a favorite spend now/pay later technique in part because lax accounting standards do not require most governmental entities to record the full future costs as a liability. Thus it is easy temptation for public officials seeking office to garner the support and votes of a well-organized and vocal group of citizens and employees without alerting the general public of the looming mountain of liability being incurred.

Most of the citizens not working for the government make do with 401(k) plans. Most government employees have old-style pension plans, all too similar to the legacy plans that helped drive General Motors into bankruptcy. Particularly expensive (my apologies to all my friends in law enforcement) are pensions for fire and police, which have relatively short vesting periods and then can begin paying immediately upon retirement.

A person could enter the department at age 20 and begin collecting a pension in her 40s, a legacy expense to the taxpayers that could go on for 30 or 40 years. When I was young and innocent I thought “20 and out” meant that the retirement payments did not start until one’s retirement age, 65 or so. When I learned that folks could start collecting “retirement” in their 40s and 50s, I was shocked. I could not understand how it was financially viable. Well, it isn’t!

The new normal should be that if people wish to pursue certain occupations that require physical vitality, then they are essentially signing up for a two-career life. They should not expect the pension [or 401(k)] from the first career to start paying out until they reach their 70s, which is fast-becoming the retirement age norm.

6. Phase Out the Local Constitutional Officers: Sheriff, Tax Collector, Tax Assessor, Clerk of the Court, and Election Supervisor all are elected positions that would more economically be filled by appointment by the County Commission and run as departments of local government. The existing Constitutional Officers have served the citizens well. I know each personally. They are greatly respected and deservedly so.

Thus I suggest the positions be phased out gradually. Each should come up for a yes or no vote every four years. If the citizens decide not to retain a Constitutional Officer or the Constitutional Officer retires, the position rolls over into an appointed one and becomes a department of the County. In the case of the Sheriff’s Office in particular, this would eliminate the annual tussle with the County Commission over budgets.

7. Consolidate the City of Gainesville and County Governments: Why pay for the same thing twice? The short-term savings would be minimal but the long-term possibilities are significant. The smaller municipalities could opt in or out as their voters choose.

I strongly recommend that the new Commission be just 5 Commissioners (see #3) with a 3 consecutive term limit. I suggest 3 terms as the limitation due to the increasing complexity of government, requiring a longer period of time to become fully effective. Term limits that are too short simply transfer power to staff because of the knowledge and experience disparity. I suggest the term limits apply to consecutive terms; if a Commissioner is willing to sit out a few years and then jump back in without the benefit of incumbency and the voters approve, so be it.

Given that the taxpayers’ pockets are a limited resource, every yes is a no to something else. It is time we learned the power of saying no.

Nothing here is a panacea. Many of these ideas focus on longer-term savings, and shorter-term sacrifices will be necessary. Still, if local government desires the citizens to sit still for further cuts in services and increases in fees and taxes, the proper way to build support is to demonstrate the willingness to tackle the heretofore untouchable sacred cows.

Our local elected officials are committed and caring and we are blessed with excellent, dedicated City staff. Doing true, deep reform——moving from old-style pension funds to 401(k)s, consolidation, eliminating politically popular departments and programs——requires that we, the citizens, be willing to support efforts toward concrete fiscal reform.

Closing Quote:
“Everyone wishes to live at the expense of the state, forgetting that the state lives at the expense of everyone.” — Fredric Basitate (1801-1850)

This post appeared as an Op-Ed in The Gainesville Sun on Sunday, April 18, 2010.