Runaway spending, raiding of 'cookie jar' risky business as recession looms

Steve Beaudoin 6:06 a.m.

Runaway spending, raiding of 'cookie jar' risky business as recession looms

On June 14, Rochester passed the 2023 budget and set a new landmark for spending at 149.6 million dollars. This includes approximately 17 percent - or six million - more in spending over actual fiscal 2021 general fund spending. This during a time when the cumulative consumer price index only went up 6.3 percent.

Though many cuts were proposed totaling nearly $1.5 million dollars, the council had little appetite for their adoption. At the end of the debate, less than $400,000 was cut from the bloated budget. Unfortunately there's far more spending to come. This week, the council will consider an additional $2,789,000 in two separate supplemental appropriations that were excluded from the budget.

In both cases, the need for these appropriations was apparent prior to the creation of the budget. One of these projects is an environmental mandate, we have no choice. The other is for a land purchase.

Going forward, there's a shortfall in the budget for the completion of the North Main Street roundabout of $3 million and the requirement of installing a fire suppression sprinkler system in City Hall. Both of which are also outside of the budget. In the case of the City Hall, the expenditure is a life safety mandate, again, we have no choice. In the case of the roundabout, yes, we could elect not to spend the money but if you've been up North Main St. lately, you know that's not an option. Suddenly, our fiscal 23 budget has mushroomed way past the nearly $150 million that was approved.

But the real question is why? Why were these line items excluded from the budget? In every case, the need for this money was apparent well before the budget was created.

Our taxes are going up by 69 cents per thousand. Not a dramatic increase when you consider it. We have a tax cap and, thanks to the unassigned fund balance - the so-called "cookie jar" - this increase is well within the cap.

Next year, we will consider a new budget. Those budget numbers will be derived in part based on this year's budget. A budget that includes general fund expenditures that have skyrocketed from roughly $33 million in 2021 to over $39 million in 2023. Again, during a period when the cumulative CPI increased by only 6.3 percent. Had it not been for this year's use of roughly $3.6 million from the unassigned fund balance your taxes would have increased far more than they have. You have to wonder just how much we'll need to pull from the UFB next year.

So where do funds from the unassigned fund balance come from? Our primary revenue source is auto registration taxes. This is well over $5 million this year. Our second largest source is derived from so called host community fees from Turnkey Landfill, well over $4 million. The remainder, north of $1.7 million this year, is leftover money from past bloated budgets. These funds are outside the tax cap calculation.

In our city charter, the tax cap calculation only refers to taxes derived from property taxes not other tax revenues. With over $10 million a year flowing into the UFB, there's little incentive to control spending and this council hasn't.

We've funded two new positions at public works for nearly $250,000. A new sidewalk sweeper (something we've never needed until now) for $160,000. A new sidewalk plow for $200,000, and somehow we need to replace a dump truck with just 68,000 miles on it for $212,000. On top of all those capital improvements, and that's just a small sample, many other budget line items have seem dramatic increases, some by more than 100 percent. Like I said, cuts to these items and more were proposed yet the council elected to leave them in the budget.

All of you are aware of the financial position you're in. Heating fuel prices have doubled. Gasoline has more than doubled. The public utilities commission has received application from all of electricity providers to double their rates, those will be approved. Going forward, the Fed will be increasing interest rates 3/4 of a percent every month for the foreseeable future. Most leading economists agree we are in a recession or are seeing stagflation. In either case, we are in for a long term economic downturn.

With $29.2 million in the UFB, (your money) and a carefully considered budget, we could have easily flat funded (or nearly) city operations this year. Instead it's business as usual in Rochester, huge growth in government with no end in sight.

Steve Beaudoin represents Ward 2 on Rochester's City Council and is a former state rep for Strafford 9.