So much water under this bridge, so much change, and yet, has anything really changed?
Anyone who used to read this blog (8,500 unique hits) knows my position is one of open discussion. And what do we have today? Tit for tat. Old, old hat (read deep into this blog and see my predictions in today's reality). We recall her, or we don't. And the question no one ever seems to want to ask in this town is, then what? There is always a next, another move. And it begins again. We can't go on this way.
So tonight, after all this time, I post anew, albeit probably my last (oh yeah, we've heard that before), to make a point I've been trying to make for quite some time now: we have not learned anything after all this and we are doomed to continue in this sad spectacle of polar opposites throwing darts at one another until both sides come to terms with their own responsibilities for adding to this.
Well, that's my opinion. But maybe another opinion, a well stated and deeply considered opinion, from someone who also happens to know the data better than anyone in this city, and also knows the history of the last three years better (and I can vouch for that since I was present at all the meetings referenced), but also even knows the past 28 years as well, may move you. If you can, if you dare to read this new letter to the current City of Troy City Council, and seriously consider the points made, then maybe it was not all for naught. Maybe this could be a starting point for a new conversation, a new narrative. Lord knows we need that.
In my view, this entire community owes Mr. Clint Meyer a huge debt of gratitude. The so-called Hyland-Meyer Analysis is essentially 2% Hyland inspiration and 98% Meyer sweat. I honor Clint's efforts and you should too. Innumerable hours were put into this analysis, and so much overpowering detail that so exposed Mr. Szerlag's sophistry that he dared not address it and chose, as is his manner, to ignore it, again and again and again. This alone should offer insight to the man and his "argument" regarding the budget.
So please, carefully weigh the magnitude of what you are about to read. Please try not to jump to conclusions before you read it all. I was there; this is what happened. This is what the data made clear. If, perhaps, some of our analysis of what this meant was off, remember that no one, NO ONE in the city administration or city council told us we were wrong. No one. Ever. Ponder that. Please.
And so, with Citizen Meyer's permission, I present the following history, a history I assure you is accurate, fair and true:
To quickly review the report's highlights: It began by showing that city manager John Szerlag had (in all likelihood unintentionally) misled council members and taxpayers in late 2009/early 2010 with his claims that the five-year budget shortfall facing the city was $22 million. This was not an accurate number, and was in fact very misleading to taxpayers. Mr. Szerlag's figure was not the deficit, but rather the sum of five consecutive (and "compounding") expenditure reductions that would be required to keep the budget balanced from year to year. Over five years, these annual cuts, which continue on and accumulate in subsequent years, would in the end amount to $82 million in reduced dollar expenditures over the five year period. The correct budget deficit, for the entire five-year period, taken as a whole (without changes in anticipated revenues and including mandated new expenditures), was $82 million. This was out of a five-year General Fund budget that, without spending cuts, was on pace to hit $342 million. The $82 million shortfall (or 24% of these tentatively planned expenditures) was confirmed in general terms by Mr. Lamerato in April 2010.
The report also highlighted the manner in which Mr. Szerlag used his proposed "Option One" budget plan in an attempt to persuade residents to vote for an increase in millage rates in February 2010. Option One was heavily publicized in the community, and its provisions were presented as a certainty to occur should the millage fail. This was an overstatement on Mr. Szerlag's part since it would be months before the plan was officially adopted by Council. In any event, Mr. Szerlag’s plan included spending cuts in many areas of the city’s operation, severe cuts in certain areas, and increases (yes, increases) in the Police Department budget. This upward boost in police expenditures was sort of slipped into several of the informational charts released by city management during the pre-election period. A routine examination of the numbers in these charts determined that they didn't "add up". The discrepancy was cleared up in a phone call to Mr. Lamerato, who explained that what looked to Mr. Hyland and me like undisclosed annual increases in expenditures were in fact just that. Mr. Lamerato then explained that the increases were necessitated by police pension funding shortfalls, along with contractually-mandated wage increases for certain members of the police department. [These wage hikes were, incidentally, negotiated in 2008, well after Troy property values had begun their precipitous decline.] According to the provisions of Option One, this police spending boost would be accompanied by only modest (and greatly delayed) police layoffs. [In fact, Mr. Lamerato was privately skeptical as to whether any substantial police layoffs would ever really occur.] There would also be zero in the way of downward change in other police pay provisions. Among other things, this meant that the police department's share of total General Fund spending would grow rapidly over the coming five years.
I may be coming to an incorrect conclusion, but Mr. Szerlag's Option One plan seems to have largely been a political plan designed to utilize the threatened closure of the library as a technique to get the attention of voters and stampede them into agreeing to a millage increase. But it also appeared to be a carefully calibrated plan, designed to avoid "needlessly" alarming taxpayers by informing them of the true size of the ($82 million) budget shortfall. Had voters known the actual size of the problem, they might well have asked the city manager and members of Council to "turn in their executive washroom keys" for failure to plan for a rainy day (or to do anything about – or even comment on – the fact that the city had dreamily spent nearly every last dime of its sizable property tax windfall during the previous quarter century). So it appears that city management decided that voters should only be told that there was a "serious" budget problem rather than a "gigantic" one. No need to encourage examination of the numbers by know-nothing meddlers within the community (something to be avoided at all costs if the city manager was to be able to continue targeting cuts at only certain parts of the city’s operation).
Mr. Szerlag was therefore walking a “$22 million/$82 million” disclosure tightrope, and although he was never forced to acknowledge this fact, part of the reason that voters resoundingly defeated the millage hike in February 2010 was that they were understandably confused as to why the amount of new 5-year revenues would far exceed the publicized 5-year deficit of $22 million. Although Mr. Szerlag lost this millage battle, he won the larger information war. Only two members of Council ever even privately acknowledged the accuracy of our budget analysis, and none of the seven chose to discuss the issue in a public forum. Mr. Szerlag would therefore never be forced to acknowledge his (unintentional) error.
Following the February 2010 millage defeat, the city manager began to act in a manner that resembled (I know this seems unlikely) someone exacting his revenge on taxpayers. One thing that is certain is that he was determined to move forward with his targeted personnel/budget cuts, and, strangely enough, his targets rarely included what was by far the largest portion of the operating budget (the police department). Please understand, Mr. Hyland and I were not and are not advocates of balancing the city's budget on the backs of the police department. We just believed that in a time of budget difficulties, all areas should contribute to the solution.
Our efforts, and those of many other residents, seemed to help nudge the final May 2010 Option One budget vote from a preliminary 6-1 position (in favor of passage) to a final 4-3 squeaker (in favor of passage). Mrs. Beltramini, Mr. Howrylak, and Mr. Fleming were the no votes, and we were grateful to them. Just one more no vote could have prevented many unfortunate events in subsequent months, but the supporters of Option One carried the day. As a result, numerous full and part-time city employees needlessly lost their jobs, and the level and quality of service to citizens declined in every department except for the Police Department. Perhaps I have been misinformed, but it is my understanding that the police were able to continue operating in a more-or-less normal manner with overlapping shifts, the same pay rates, and regularly scheduled overtime.
Two and a half years ago Mr. Hyland and I were newcomers to city politics, and were drawn into the fray for the first time (at ages 50 and 58) mostly because of the way city management had made a political football of our award-winning public library and its staff. In the process we discovered a number of other problems in both the approach and methods of the city, and as a result we were regularly treated with less than ordinary courtesy by certain members of Council. And we were actively disrespected, and in a public way, by the city manager. Very little of the many hours of work that we put into our financial analyses was ever acknowledged by Council members. Not one of our recommendations was ever formally discussed, and none was ever proposed or voted on by Council. The city manager's very stubborn four-member Council faction simply continued to wear solemn and stony expressions, and do little but shake their heads and complain about "those d--n TCU supporters".
For those of you still reading this lengthy discussion, thanks very much for staying with me to the end.