John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Monday, December 20, 2010

Final Levy Set

I didn't get a chance to write about it yet, but at our special budget meeting on December 6th the Maplewood City Council approved the final levy and budget for 2011.

Mayor Rossbach and I voted to reduce the levy increase by $122,000, because in our view we had included this money in the preliminary levy specifically for some unknowns in employee costs, particularly in terms of cost-of-living increases and health insurance expenses.  When we set the preliminary levy in September, we didn't know what the final numbers would be, or even if the employee contracts would be finalized by the time the final levy was set.  (Happily, they were.)  However, our motion failed on a 3-2 vote.  The argument on the other side was that there is still a long list of unknowns and potential expenses, and if we don't have adequate reserves in our fund balance we could face serious mid-year budget cuts and a need for a bigger increase in the 2012 levy.

My first choice was to leave that money in taxpayer pockets, but after my motion to amend the levy amount failed I did still vote for the final levy with its 5% increase (Rossbach was the only vote against).  I do see the value in replenishing our reserves, which have been depleted in the past several years as we've seen declining revenues; and the money is standing by for unexpected needs, not being allocated to any ongoing increase in operating expenses.

As has been explained time and again, the levy increase isn't funding an expansion of city government.  On the contrary, we have reduced the number of city employees, negotiated zero percent COLAs for staff salaries in 2011 (as well as 0% salary increases for the council, mayor, and city manager), etc.  But we have lost other revenue sources -- not only the oft-discussed Market Value Homestead Credit, but things like interest income.  The city gets two big lumps of revenue each year, from the semi-annual property tax payments, and it used to be that the interest on that money, as it sat waiting to be paid out for city operating costs, added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year -- dollars that then did not need to be raised via property tax.  But not in today's interest rate environment.

For more on the budget and levy meeting, check out the article in last week's Maplewood Review.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Shared Recreation Services

While I was away, our City Council unanimously approved a joint powers agreement with our neighboring city of North Saint Paul to provide shared recreation programming for both cities.  (Were I here, I would have voted in favor as well.)  We had taken some small steps in this direction this past summer, with Maplewood providing lifeguards for North Saint Paul's beach on Silver Lake.  City officials from both cities should be commended for the work they put into this.

Local newspapers have covered the agreement: the Maplewood Review published an article after the North Saint Paul City Council signed off last month, and the Star Tribune followed its earlier and more detailed article with a short piece after our Council's action on Monday.

I expect this will be only the beginning of such programs among cities, as we try to stretch our dollars further in maintaining services for our residents.  Shared services are worth looking into at any time, but the state's fiscal crisis and the resulting cuts of funds to cities make it a matter of urgency today.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Home to Snow

I made it home, despite the snarls in the American air traffic system following the weekend storm. It was quite a contrast to go from this:

to this:

As much as I enjoyed several days of comparing experiences in the technical details of municipal governance around the world, I'm very happy to be home again with my family.  And maybe it's not so bad to have missed the shoveling...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Goals, Objectives, Targets

During a short break here, I thought I'd upload a picture from the training conference I'm attending in Casablanca.  Here I am seated with three local officials from three Saudi cities.

We've just finished an exercise (I was facilitator for this group, one of five) identifying a goal, objectives to accomplish in pursuit of that goal, and targets for the advocacy efforts. After a short break, we'll be presenting our findings to the rest of the group.

The goal chosen is "Efficient and Timely Completion of Public Works Projects." We had some interesting discussions about things like "lowest responsible bidder" and "best value contracting."

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Je rêve de Noël blanc

My trip to Morocco is being interrupted by an unexpectedly long layover in Paris, where snow has shut down the airport and cancelled the last flight leg of my trip.  I'm rebooked on a later flight, but it means I'll miss dinner with the other folks attending this conference.

But I'm somewhere that there's WiFi.  And the ground crews outside here at Roissy-CDG airport are enjoying throwing snowballs at each other, as you can see.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Employee Contracts Tonight

It's very good news that tonight's special budget meeting agenda includes two-year contracts for all seven of the city employee bargaining units.  All of the units have agreed to 0% cost-of-living adjustments for 2011, in light of the state of the economy, declining revenues and state cuts, and the recent low rate of inflation.  The two-year contracts include a COLA of 1% for 2012, which I think is a good trade-off for the certainty of having agreements in place and knowing that we won't have to spend months on contract negotiations again next year only to see a higher COLA than that.  The employees are getting that 1% increase, but they're also accepting the risk that inflation might spike over the next two year period.

There are a lot of other details about the agreement that are important but take a lot more explanation.  In particular, changes to health care insurance coverage that were part of the package in the last round of contracts have paid big dividends to the city (and the employees) in holding down the growth in our health insurance costs.  A few more tweaks should be approved to help continue to keep a lid on those costs while maintaining quality health care for our employees.

After the strained state of labor-management relations in Maplewood just a few years ago, the smooth process in this round of contract negotiations is a welcome change, with all the contracts settled before we set our final levy and approve the 2011 budget, and no contracts going to arbitration.  And given the details of the contracts (such as that 0% COLA), I think it's fair to say that the comity in city hall hasn't short-changed the taxpayers one bit.

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

What Affects Property Taxes

If you find the calculation of property taxes confusing, you're not alone.  Whether your local government increases or cuts its tax levy, your property taxes may increase or decrease because of completely different factors, such as how much your home's value changed in comparison to other properties in the city.

I came across this video primer on how it works.

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