Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fire fighters vs. public sculpture

Here's a draft of tomorrow's "Our View":

We love the idea of the Iowa City Council preparing for an uncertain economic future by listing out every program and service funded by the city and ranking them according to priority. If done right, the process could help ensure that the city remains committed to the functions of local government that matter most. And once done — sometime in May, most likely after the local option sales tax election — the process will allow the council to know which programs and which services it can cut in order to trim $250,000 in expenses from the fiscal year 2010 budget and $1 million for fiscal years 2011 to 2014.

After Tuesday’s city council meeting, however, we’re not sure if the council is up for this difficult task. We were disappointed when the councilors unanimously decided that the current economic downturns means they need to renege on their recent promise to staff a long needed fourth fire station in the city’s northeast corner. Our disappointment turned to sheer astonishment, however, when every councilor except Matt Hayek and Amy Correia then voted to spend $80,000 on a public sculpture for Waterworks Prairie Park.

What kind of prioritization is that? How can any voter or taxpayer trust councilors who decide to renege on their commitment to fund firefighters during the same meeting that they decide to commit themselves contractually to pay for a public sculpture? And how can the majority of the council make those two decisions in the same meeting at the very time they need to be convincing city voters to fork over an additional 1-cent sales tax to pay for flood recovery?

We’ve heard this all before

We get that this is the worst budget climate in 30 years. We get that the recent revenue estimates are getting more and more dire. And we’re glad to see that the FY2010 budget still sets aside the money necessary for constructing — but not staffing — a new fire station.

But that’s basically where the fire station issue has been stuck for years. Throughout this decade — in budget years that now seem lush in comparison to FY2010 — we’ve heard repeatedly how the city has the money to build a fourth fire station but doesn’t enough money to pay the salary of the additional firefighters. At the same time, we’ve heard city staff provide statistic after statistic to explain why building a new fire station is the No. 1 priority for increasing public safety in the area. In fact, it’s hard for any public safety official to make a case for any other project until this No. 1 need gets met.

We’ve praised this city council for trying to come up with creative solutions to this funding impasse. And we were thrilled when the councilors finally decided to listen to their public safety officials and to commit to funding the positions in the next budget. But Tuesday’s decision to remove that promised money for staffing from the FY2010 budget just sets everything up for another round of rationalizing why this public safety need can’t be met this budget year.

Reneging on a necessary public safety commitment

Now councilors say that they haven’t reneged on their commitment. They say they’ve just decided to throw the staffing of the new fire station in with all the other programs and services that need to be prioritized. They say the funding for the new firefighters could be put back during the prioritization process — or if money from the federal stimulus bill becomes available. And the process will make clear what cuts need to be made to fund the firefighters.

But councilors would have done better to reaffirm that they view the fire station as a No. 1 priority. Otherwise all their talk seems the equivalent of saying that the money could possibly be put back if, say, all the stars were to align correctly. Or if, say, the entire community comes out, claps their hands and shouts loudly enough, “I believe in fourth fire stations.”

In fact, the only way this money will be put back into the budget is if the community raises enough of a hue and cry to provide the councilors with enough political cover so that they can do the right thing: Cut some discretionary quality of life staffing and programming in order to pay for this long overdue public safety necessity.

Committing to a discretionary public art expense

We’d be more comfortable with the council throwing the fire station staffing into the prioritization process if the councilors were treating all expenses equally. But no sooner did the council unanimously decide to defund a No. 1 priority public safety issue for FY2010 when a majority of council decided to commit at least $37,000 of FY2010 money.

Because of public art’s existing obligations, $43,000 of the sculpture’s $80,000 price tag will come out of public arts’ FY2009 money and $37,000 is to come from the program’s budget for FY2010. By voting Tuesday to accept the contract, the council committed the city to pay that $37,000 to the artist even if the councilors later decide to reduce or even to cut the public art program’s funding. That means, a majority of the council decided — before the prioritization process began — that the city’s public art budget will have at least $37,000 in FY2010; otherwise, the city will be in breach of contract.

We question the judgment of city councilors who decide that budgeting $520,000 from FY2010 for nine firefighters isn’t of a high enough priority to decide right now, but who then decide that budgeting $37,000 from FY2010 for a public sculpture is of such high priority that the contract needs to be signed right away.

How do these decisions give voters confidence that this council can make good use of the limited money it has — let alone make good use of additional revenue from a local option sales tax?

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