House edit: Paradigm change at City Hall

The city of Idaho Falls hasn’t raised its levy rate in five years. That means residents have not been asked to pay more in property taxes to support city employee salaries, infrastructure and amenities such as parks, the zoo and Aquatic Center.

That is, as Councilman Tom Hally said at budget work session this week, “pretty good.” It’s also pretty misleading. The city has balanced its books, in part, by deferring maintenance and raiding savings.

The city will collect about $27.1 million in property taxes this year. That includes nearly $360,000 in new construction, money it could leave off the table but should not.

The city could, by law, collect up to another $7.1 million, money that would come in handy given Idaho Falls’ looming infrastructure needs.

Roads, the city’s primary responsibility, require another $1 million to $1.8 million. A new fire station, a need identified nearly three decades ago, could run another $2 million.

What are the options?

A tax increase is on the table. So is another raid on savings. The third, and seemingly least popular option, is to cut.

Last year, the council used $2 million in savings to pay bills. Some savings, for select projects, likely will get used this year. But the balance of the city’s rainy day fund should be kept as close to its current $9 million as possible.

A tax increase would be, in some ways, the easy way out. But it shouldn’t come to that. Not yet. That leads us to the final option: cuts.

Look around. Virtually every private sector business made major adjustments when the recession hit. Workforces were trimmed. Those who remained experienced furloughs and pay cuts, while paying more for health insurance. Senior staff at many businesses cut their own pay deeply to keep the doors open.

The public sector also felt the pain.

Idaho cut state spending by more than 20 percent, leading to layoffs, furloughs and reductions in services. The feds were not spared. The Idaho National Laboratory experienced waves of layoffs and senior managers say they can take no more; that additional reductions will result in entire programs lost.

Mayor Rebecca Casper asked division directors to submit budgets containing cuts of 5 percent. That’s a good place to start. Call everyone in. Scrub every budget for redundancies. Get creative. Be ruthless. Freeze hiring. Cut pay raises. Ask employees to pay more for their health insurance. Reward innovation.

This is doable. In one afternoon in 2009, the city cut $412,000 out of its budget and lowered the levy.

There is more at stake than a single budget or a small property tax hike. The decisions made in the next month will signal either a continued lack of leadership, vision, planning and direction or a new paradigm at City Hall.

This is why Idaho Falls elected Casper mayor. It’s the reason fiscal conservatives Barbara Ehardt and Dee Whittier won council seats — why they were joined by a former Fortune 500 company executive, Ed Marohn.

We believe this combination of new energy and old blood (Hally and council veterans Sharon Parry and Mike Lehto) can get the job done; that young, smart and creative division directors such as Duane Nelson (Fire), Chris Fredrickson (Public Works), Jackie Flowers (Power), Brad Kramer (P&Z) and Greg Weitzel (Parks) can be valuable allies in this difficult process.

Dig in. Do the work. Report your findings to the public. And, if after all that, city officials still believe a tax increase is necessary, let’s have the conversation.

Until that effort is made, however, city officials shouldn’t be asking for more money. At this point, they haven’t demonstrated the need or proven they are deserving of it.

Corey Taule