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Commentary: City needs more open process

Posted in the Prior Lake American: Thursday, December 10, 2015 1:00 pm

By John Diers

The Prior Lake City Council will hold a public hearing on the 2016 budget and tax levy at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14 at City Hall. The budget proposes a maximum 11.5-percent increase in 2016 property taxes and a near doubling of the city’s debt from $36 million to $65 million by the end of 2019.

After the hearing, the council can approve the budget and the levy, reduce it, or freeze it altogether. There’s been considerable debate, and the issues involved have been discussed in this column and elsewhere. Now, it’s up to the council.

Here are some thoughts:

First, this hasn’t been a very open process. The city held one public meeting. Budget workshops for the council were held at 5 p.m. They were not recorded, made available on the city TV broadcast channel or streamed on the city’s website.

Citizens for Accountable Government held a separate informational meeting, but its representative and presenter had to spend many hours unraveling the city’s data to pull together a PowerPoint presentation for the meeting. It was remarked at the meeting that no one from the group came to council meetings or workshop presentations. At 5 p.m. on a work evening, most people are either still at work, or commuting.

And what about the city’s website? There are no direct links.

Contrast this with the city of Burnsville. Go to www.burnsville.org/budget and you will come to a page devoted to its 2016 budget replete with a calendar of meetings and presentations, all of them recorded and streamed, there’s a full copy of the budget along with copies of budgets from previous years and a comment button to allow citizen questions and feedback.

Prior Lake’s is an embarrassment and raises the obvious question. Do city officials have any interest in an open process, or is it an attempt to keep the public at arm’s length, while threatening consequences such as deferred maintenance on city infrastructure or cuts to city services? If there is a real need, city officials should make the case with numbers and logic, not with threats to cut city services, or with platitudes and feel-good pep fests.

Second, budgets are built from the bottom up, not the top down, yet both the mayor and the city manager declared the need for an 11.5-percent increase in the city property tax levy at the start of the budget process. How could they determine there would be a need for a tax increase? Zero-based budgeting is used in both the public and private sectors. It demands that each budget request is evaluated from a zero base, independent of whether the total budget or specific line items are increasing or decreasing. Why isn’t zero-based budgeting practiced at City Hall?

Finally, the city’s 2040 Vision statement has been used to defend the 2016 budget and the need for capital projects and spending based on future growth and development. Think about it — 2040 is 25 years in the future. Subtract 25 years from 2015 and you’re in 1990, then ponder based on what we know, today whether anyone could predict the world of 2015 much less make investment decisions based on what was known in 1990? The 2040 Vision is all about magical thinking. Using it to justify and defend a 2016 budget is ludicrous.

This is a harsh assessment, but the council needs to step up and take charge, give direction to city staff to be forthcoming and correct what has been a pretty sorry process that should never be repeated. More specifically, it should freeze the budget and the proposed levy increase and revisit the city’s budget process and its long-range plans for growth and development.

There’s an election in 2016. The mayor’s office and two council seats are up for election. It would be an appropriate forum for the community to have a larger discussion.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email the editor at the American. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)