Municipal finance doesn’t engender public confidence

It’s complicated. Details are constantly shifting. For that matter rules are often changing. What we see of it today has little to do with the decision makers of today. It is thus often frustrating, aggravating and easy to misunderstand.

Municipal finance/public sector budgeting is convoluted so it is little wonder that so many seem to lack confidence in major projects and investment budgets.

Consider that just recently the Northwest Area Water Supply project (NAWS) has been cited as one of the reasons for the City of Minot’s budget challenges.

“That’s where the majority of the pressure is coming from inside this budget,” City Manager Tom Barry said of NAWS last week. The shift of sales tax back to NAWS takes $1.2 million from property tax relief and $1.6 million from infrastructure improvements. It takes $1.2 million from community facilities, which the city re-allocated this year for flood protection. Barry said the shift in sales tax adds more than 19 mills to the property-tax levy.

As reported in Minot Daily News, that’s caused some in the community to question where the NAWS money is going because voters believed the project had enough money in reserves when they voted in 2011 to redirect the NAWS penny.

Barry said the money in reserves was believed to be enough in 2011.

“That has since turned out not to be the case,” he said.

Later in the week, we learned that the budget to maintain roads in no way comes close to what is needed. Almost $6 million a year is needed in street maintenance funding to keep the overall condition of Minot’s city streets from worsening, according to information provided to members of the Minot City Council Wednesday. The city has been spending about $3 million a year on maintenance. At $3 million a year, street conditions will continue to deteriorate as a backlog of projects occurs, City Engineer Lance Meyer reported. Even at nearly $6 million a year, a backlog would exist. To eliminate the backlog in five years, the city would have to spend about $11.6 million a year, figures showed.

Is it any wonder there is ample public cynicism when presented with budget and spending projections? Is there really any wonder why people might be dubious of what flood protection will end up costing?

Sometimes this cynicism unfortunately descends into paranoia when today’s officials are unfairly and dishonestly labeled corrupt or incompetent for these realities. Today’s officials didn’t set these things in motion. Informed observers recognize that the current administration is so busy trying to mitigate for bad decisions from the past that its own agenda must often take a back seat.

Still, better communication would soften the blow of some of this spending news, which does not bode well for stressed taxpayers. Just as long as we start from the position that government budgets/spending is not simple or even easily predicted. Because it isn’t either of those things.