During a luncheon with former Wyoming Secretary of State Rita Meyer quite a few years back, she said something profound, and as the years have worn on her words have become more so. “Wyoming is the only state where deficit spending is defined by being able to put less into savings than you did last year,” she said.
And local governments in this state, well known and frequently praised for their fiscal conservatism, are well versed in how to navigate the minefield of budgets to make them appear how they want them to appear to the rest of us for political optics. Simply put, the general public has such as difficult time understanding the proposed budgets of city and county governments that they see the overall numbers and immediately take them at face value.
First of all, a proposed budget is based on guesses. If those doing the guesses are being honest in their assessments, then our elected leaders can make some pretty good educated guesses of their own whether we can afford project A or can offer employee raises or have to consider wage freezes or layoffs. If whoever is a little less forthright, the numbers can be manipulated up or down to fit whatever agenda is in the works.
We are hip deep into budget season this month. New governmental budgets across the board (city, county and state) start July 1. The City of Douglas proposed budget was rejected, then approved, Monday because it contains a projected deficit of $7.8 million. That is a scary number . . . until you realize the city has been storing money in reserve accounts for this very scenario but it is also based on some very unstable revenue projections.
The city had $53 million in total reserves, of which $20 million is in general fund reserves. Yes, we agree with those who worry that spending $4 million in general fund reserves will eventually deplete them. But what else are those reserves for if not emergencies? Wouldn’t a major shortfall in revenues be one?
Maybe. Maybe not.
The lingering question is will the sales tax projections really drop 40% more than the 37% they dropped this past year. Is that a case of predicting the sky is falling? Or is it based on a real trajectory of declining sales tax numbers with no leveling off in sight?
Based on the tax collections countywide since 2012, it appears the latter. In the current fiscal year, sales taxes here averaged $5.6 million a month, right in line with our long-term average. We just got used to the $7-$8 million a month numbers for the last two years.
So we have to doubt that sky is falling and the city will see sales tax revenues plummet 40% this year. There’s no indication that will happen. If it does, the council has bigger problems than spending $4 million of its reserves, and the rest of us are in trouble, too.
If it doesn’t decrease or if it actually increases as many predict with the surge in oil and gas prices, we have to wonder why someone would predict a drastic drop?
As a final note, we asked for a copy of the draft budget earlier this year so we could see what numbers the city was looking at, and the response was we could have one for $178 – the cost of someone “researching” it and making a copy or emailing it to us. If we’d known the city was in such shape, we’d probably have paid it. (The budget is now on the city website, so we suggest you go look for yourself, and it’s free.)