What should the role of fairness be during crisis?

11 years ago

What should the role of fairness be during crisis?


by Jim Bennett

    Fairness and equity are important values to all of us. It has been my experience that community leaders highly value fairness and equity; I certainly do.

These values play an important role in the decisions that are made on all levels of community leadership. When given the luxury of reasonable resources, these values are easily upheld. Take away those resources, and they are called into question.
    Unfortunately, the city is no longer in a position of abundant resources. While I have elected to use the phrase “crisis” in the title of this article, I do want to be clear, we are not in what would be described normally as a severe crisis. We are, however, getting very close.
    Briefly, let’s explain why I make this word choice. The 2014 proposed budget is $11,083,838. It is only $291,844 higher than the city budget a half decade ago. Of that amount, most of it is intended to be spent on capital items like paving roads and replacing equipment. These expenses are necessary because they will only get more expensive if we put off taking care of them. When compared to 2009, the budget has increased by only $73,713 in all other areas of spending, which is less than one percent (or .006 percent). The city’s cost for gas, diesel, and heating oil alone has gone up more than that amount. For all practical purposes, the spending in the city has not increased. Yet, some costs have dramatically increased.
    In 2008, the city received $1,988,085 from the state to reduce your property taxes (through revenue sharing). Instead of making other tough choices, our leaders in Augusta have decided to use this account to pay state bills. In 2014, the city is projected to receive $746,497. That is a decrease of $1,241,588 that has to be found elsewhere to maintain services.    
    Over the last five years, your municipal leaders have had to make difficult choices to absorb these reductions. For most of the last four years, taxes did not go up. I am proud that we did not have any major impacts on services during this period. Unfortunately, we have exhausted all options to absorb more reductions.
    Our loss of resources and potential impact on citizens has people calling fairness and equity into question.
    Over the last few months I have heard people making comments such as “is it fair that …” — fill in the blank with whatever ending you want. Some of the more common ones that I have heard include:
• Presque Isle property taxpayers have to pay more because the state significantly cut revenues to the city?
• long-term employees have to pay more for health insurance because they were hired under a different expectation?
• newer employees who make less money have to pay more for their insurance (up to five times as much) just because they were hired later?
• city employees should lose benefits or jobs to make up for the increased costs associated with the higher school budget?
• city employees should get better benefits than the private sector?
• property taxpayers should pay more in taxes and get less services?
• services that might be cut will affect the less fortunate people so that the rich people can pay less?
• people can live in surrounding committees and enjoy all of the opportunities in Presque Isle, many of the services and the same school system, and pay less?
    The list can go on and on. Of course, the answer to each and every one of those questions/statements is probably a resounding “no,” regardless of your personal position.
    In adopting the 2014 budget, the City Council would love to be fair to everyone. The definition of fair would probably include:
• did not raise taxes
• did not increase any fees or create any new ones
• did not eliminate any services
• did not reduce any service levels
• did not lay off any employees
• gave all employees a reasonable increase in their pay
• did not change any employee’s benefits
• found another $411,449 to pay for the increase in the school tax that is already been approved by the voters.
    Unfortunately, that is not possible. While we have been able to obtain those goals in most of the last four years, it will be beyond our grasp this year. Hence, that is the reason I have suggested we are approaching a crisis.
    The City Council will be challenged greatly in the next few weeks. They will not be able to be “fair” by most people’s definition. The tough decisions they are facing will not allow them to be popular. Political courage and leadership, things that they have demonstrated many times for the long-term benefit of this community, will be required. In fact, those traits will be at a premium.
    As citizens, how can you help? I would suggest three ways. First, be as informed as you can be. The issues are never as simple as advocates would want you to believe. Second, let city councilors know what your priorities are. Understand that keeping everything and paying the same is not obtainable in 2014. Finally, and probably most importantly, share that you appreciate that they are trying to do the right thing for the community. They are not doing this for financial gain (they gave up their small stipends of $1,500 annually). You may not agree with the decisions they make, but I hope that you would appreciate what a thankless job it is, especially right now. A kind word to them would be much appreciated.
    Finally, one has to wonder how much “fairer” it could be for everyone if the elected officials in Augusta had left revenue sharing alone and we had an additional $1 million in 2014 to deal with the issues?
    City Manager Jim Bennett can be reached at 760-2785 or via e-mail at jbennett@presqueisleme.us.