By Dan Njegomir | Colorado Watchdog
DENVER — For months, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other supporters of a citywide, $44 million-plus property-tax hike on Tuesday’s ballot have been touting City Hall’s efforts to tighten its own belt as an incentive to voters to help bridge a projected $94 million spending gap.
They’ve argued that case tirelessly before civic groups, armed with a PowerPoint presentation underscoring the city’s willingness to squeeze out “efficiency savings,” “reduce pension … costs” and effect “agency spending reductions” for a total savings of $50 million. The implication is that the city is meeting voters halfway — if only they’re willing to pay more in business and residential property taxes by embracing Measure 2A.
Yet, as indicated in budget documents released by the city, the promised savings hardly amount to the kind of drastic, slash-and-burn, eleventh-hour sacrifices associated with a fiscal crisis. On the contrary, they’re actually part of long-standing, ongoing fiscal practices that predate the city’s latest financial straits. In many if not most cases, the cuts would have made their way into next year’s budget anyway and in some cases have played a role in prior years’ budgets.
Moreover, those $50 million in savings are already in the 2013 draft budget that will be presented to the City Council this week for its final approval. Augmented by tapping into the city’s fiscal reserves as well as by higher revenue projections for next year, the pending 2013 budget erases the $94 million deficit and is balanced ― without counting on any of the revenue anticipated from 2A. Indeed, if the ballot measure passes, the city will have to revise the budget to reflect the new revenue.
In other words, it’s a case of mission accomplished, crisis averted ― and more reason to vote “no” on 2A, according to Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz.
“Even if the tax measure doesn’t pass, this will be sufficient,” said Faatz, the council’s most outspoken budget hawk and its only member to have voted against placing the tax hike on the ballot in the first place.
Faatz said while she doesn’t regard the budget as ideal ― it once again includes the likes of unpopular reductions in library hours ― none of its spending restraints are dramatic. She noted that a public hearing on the budget drew only two citizens who expressed concerns about its cuts. She said she took that as a showing of, “reasonable satisfaction with the way we are budgeting what we have right now.”
One briefing document released by the city’s budget chief, Brendan Hanlon, details some $10 million in “efficiency savings” already incorporated into the 2013 budget ― but that the mayor and some other elected officials have been using as bargaining chips with voters.
The savings, though arguably laudable, for the most part reflect open-ended nipping and tucking at various city operations, rather than urgent, last-ditch attempts to cut spending regarded as vital.
For example, one of the items, labeled “Strategic Resource Alignment Efforts,” saves taxpayers $4.9 million next year and includes the notation:
“In 2011 the city conducted a strategic resource alignment (SRA) study of the safety agencies. This study identified opportunities in the police, fire and sheriff departments. These have been implemented in each organization including civilianizing positions and reducing higher rank positions. This SRA and other efficiency work we are conducting can be found on the denvergov website: http://www.denvergov.org/mayorhancock/MayorsOffice/ProgramsInitiatives/PeakPerformance/tabid/442536/Default.aspx
“We are conducting more of these studies across the city and these will generate additional savings as well,” the study said.
Another item on the briefing worksheet, “Criminal Justice System Efficiencies,” saves just under $900,000 and is accompanied by the notation:
“Over the past (three) years we have been working on process improvements primarily the automation of data transfers which has reduced the need for staff to perform these functions.”
Similarly, as Hanlon said, some $5 million in reduced annual pension costs for city employees was achieved through a modest increase in employees’ pension contributions.
Faatz maintains that City Hall in fact hasn’t made nearly enough of a sacrifice on behalf of strapped taxpayers struggling with a sluggish economy. She said the city could restore some popular services pared back in recent years if it were willing to give up other, less pressing expenditures.
For example, she said, the city continues to divert $2 million a year from Xcel Energy franchise fees ― passed through from local ratepayers’ utility bills ― to “a lot of green programs” such as energy-efficiency audits.
“Is that a key priority?” Faatz said. “Or is it time to now say maybe that money should come back into the general fund?”
She also pointed to the 43 public information officers scattered throughout city government, most of their positions funded by general tax revenue.
“Is the public really being that informed?” she said. “If library hours are more important, we need to consider that.”
Contact Dan Njegomir at [email protected]