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Our Opinion: Council: Adopt a budget and then own it

The adults have spoken. The state Department of Management told the bickering Waterloo City Council majority and Mayor Quentin Hart that its failure to adopt a fiscal year 2018-19 budget has consequences.

The infighting about raising taxes (and fees) or making significant cuts, particularly in public safety positions, has led to a budget stalemate between the 4-3 council majority and mayor. The failure to meet the March 15 state deadline will leave the city with the same level of tax collections for next year as in the current fiscal year. (The City Council added the budget to its Monday night agenda so a vote could come then.)

“Waterloo will still need to complete the adoption of a budget by resolution of the council,” said Ted Nellesen, of the Iowa Department of Management. “Without a budget adopted by resolution, the city would not be allowed to tax or expend cash on hand during (FY 2018-19).”

The penalty prohibits the city from adopting a tax rate causing nondebt service property taxes to be higher than the current year, although that’s unlikely to deter the current council majority.

Hart proposed raising the tax rate from $17.60 to $17.76 per $1,000 of value. That’s actually a 1.4 percent cut in homeowner tax bills because the state rollback order reduced a home’s assessed value from 56.9 percent to 55.6 percent.

Under Hart’s plan, $12.14 would pay for police and fire services; $2.99 for debt obligations; 27 cents each for voter-approved library and Grout Museum levies; and $2.09 for parks, the library, general administration, culture and arts and all other property tax-supported operations.

He would pay the increased operating costs by raising the current gas and electric utility franchise fee from 3 percent to 3.5 percent to generate $450,000. The city adopted a 2 percent fee in 2013 and pushed it to 3 percent in 2014.

Franchise fees became a go-to “tax” for many cities after the Legislature approved property tax relief for commercial and multi-residential property owners in 2013, while promising local governments “backfill” funds to compensate for revenue losses, which inevitably fell short.

Council members Margaret Klein, Steve Schmitt, Bruce Jacobs and Chris Shimp supported a tax rate cut to $17.17 in line with the city’s strategic goal of $16.50 by 2022.

They opposed the franchise fee increase and felt, rightly so, that Hart is too optimistic in including $1.7 million in backfill when the Republican-controlled Legislature is intent on straining state coffers with a huge tax cut.

Yet Jacobs and Klein didn’t want to be bothered with service cuts.

“The council sets the direction of the levy rate, and we expect the administration and department heads to find ways to help us get there,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think it’s our job to find what we’re going to cut.”

“We are simply the big picture organization,” Klein said. “I will leave the development of that to the administrators.”

Not so. To quote Pottery Barn, “If you break it, you’ve bought it.” You’ll own the pieces.

Waterloo Police Capt. Joe Leibold said a 2.5 percent cut in the police tax asking could reduce the force of 123 sworn officers by seven, while eliminating the Violent Crimes Apprehension Team and Safe Streets Task Force, which has taken almost 400 firearms “out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. They’ve prevented shootings. … They are really dialed into the criminal culture at the street level.”

A 5 percent cut could forfeit grant funding and 12 to 15 officers.

With a 2.5 percent cut, Capt. Pat Treloar of Waterloo Fire Rescue anticipated longer response times, now about 30 seconds behind its four-minute average goal, and station closures. Five percent could shutter Station No. 6 at Ansborough Avenue and Dixon Drive.

Leisure Services is facing revenue losses due to a new Young Arena lease with the Waterloo Black Hawks and a downturn in golf.

Klein suggested selling one of the three golf courses and closing one of the two swimming pools, although draining the Gates Park pool could make for a politically hot summer.

Schmidt broached Cedar Falls’ approach to public safety officers — police trained to assist on fire calls, which Leibold and Treloar resisted. Given worst-case scenarios, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

However, his idea of a metropolitan police force — saddling Cedar Falls with Waterloo’s problems — will happen when pigs fly.

Waterloo is Iowa’s fifth-largest city, but 12th in property values, causing its tax rate to be comparatively high, which the council majority cites as an impediment to economic development.

However, a significant reduction in city services also would be a large red flag to prospective businesses factoring in quality of life.

That’s part of the big picture.

The folks on the City Hall playground need to reach a viable compromise.

Students’ activism following shooting to be encouraged

Lou Honary

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting, young high school students spoke out eloquently and with passion. The reactions of many in the media and the political leadership as well as the general public have been one of surprise and disbelief. Many grownups took note that these students seem mature beyond their age.

Benjamin Kelly, staff to Florida’s representative Shawn Harrison, went so far as to email a journalist, claiming two of the more outspoken students were hired actors. Students Emma Gonzales and David Hogg were not actors as claimed, and Kelly was quickly fired.

But for many high school teachers or university professors this is not a surprise. Beyond my engineering-related courses I taught some general education classes with students from across the disciplines. The students’ intelligence and thoughtfulness never ceased to amaze me. In fact, the diversity of views and the empathy for opposing views in those young students have been the source of optimism in me and I think for many of my colleagues.

So, when high school students spoke with such clarity and expressed their views with such passion, we had to remind ourselves those were our children and not the grownups they seem to be. The same students reminded us in their shaky but resolved voices they are children who want to go to school and feel safe. “You are the adults – please do something,” they demanded.

These students are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of the voting of their parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, the parents and grandparents vote with an eye on the past and often with partisan emotion and then students will have to deal with the consequences of those votes in the future. It is possible the adults are radicalized and divided by foreign trolls on our social media.

But, we may find soon the partisan hot buttons like Planned Parenthood on one side and the NRA on the other side will lose their effectiveness as dividers of Americans for the current generation of youth. They are focused on the results of our actions and not the political emotions and partisan politics.

Nearly two decades ago, students in a general education course I taught discussed the issue of guns and schools. On arming the teachers some suggested a small emergency box with a combination lock for storing guns in each classroom to communicate the combination numbers to the teachers to open in case of emergency. Opposing arguments were presented with the scary scenario of several teachers engaging Columbine-style shooters in a shootout while students hide behind thin drywall partitioned classrooms.

On arming the teacher, students argued teachers too share the same statistics in social issues as everyone else. There are mental illnesses, stalking spouses, animosities, anger managements and other ailments that afflict members of the society. Add the stand your ground prerogative and we may see decades of teacher shootings before we wake up to the fact this may not be without unforeseen consequences. In summary, the class could not find a simple answer.

The issues are complex because society is faced with trying to balance constitutional rights with a need to protect our children in schools and innocent people at public gatherings. The argument the Florida case was a law enforcement failure because the 19-year-old shooter had shown signs of trouble is not comforting.

The shooter in Las Vegas had shown no indication he was going to commit mass murder and hurt so many people. Eventually, the solution, however partial it may be, will come from the actions of our youths whose minds are not cluttered with partisan suspicions and emotional inability to come together.

Sunshine laws meant for everyone

Open government is not a political platform.It is a basic American right.

The political landscape is more polarized than ever and there seems to be little common ground for conservatives and progressives.

Transparency — keeping the light on the people’s business — ought to be something everyone can agree on.

Instead, conservatives want to reveal the secrets of liberals and liberals want to expose the actions of conservatives.

Openness in government is not a liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, independent, Libertarian or freedom caucus issue.

It often appears whatever party is in the minority becomes the champion of transparency right up until the time it is in the majority.

Politicians stump on transparency and are all about open access, until they have something they want to keep secret.

The need for transparency in local, state and federal government transcends parties and political ideologies.

Checks and balances provide few checks and little balance when officials broker deals behind closed doors and conceal documents that contain important information the public has the right, and often the need, to know.

Local government has the biggest impact in the lives of people on a day-to-day basis.

Whether it is in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, business taxes, state-shared dollars or federal grants, loans and funding, local government is 100 percent taxpayer-funded.

The public has the right to know how its money is being spent.

The decisions being made, the dollars being doled out and the records being kept by city hall, the county commission, the board of education or the utility district all belong to liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, independents, Libertarians and even politically disinterested individuals.

All stakeholders have a stake in open meetings and public records and should care about transparency issues.

The lack of and need for true government transparency should be about the most bipartisan cause that exists.

Any elected official who truly cares about public service in a real and meaningful way and fully understands what a representative form of government is all about, should not only champion openness in government, but should be the most effective watchdogs, looking out for the public trust.

Sadly, those kinds of elected officials are hard to find.

The press tries to keep an eye on government and expose clandestine actions and in response journalists are often ridiculed, belittled and even threatened for just doing their jobs, as they work to keep government honest by making use of access laws.

But, the public needs to understand that access to government documents and actions is not just a media right.

It is your right.

Lou Honary