Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Indy's Supposed Structural Budget Deficit - Too Soon

Man, I didn't see this coming.

Newly inaugurated Mayor Joe Hogsett has barely begun to get used to the view from the 25th floor and he's trying to ease the public psyche toward yet another tax increase.

Fox 59 reporter, Russ McQuaid, has published his interview with Mayor Hogsett, where taxes and spending and budget deficits and wishes and wants were all discussed.  At the end of it all, Hogsett said his staff will analyze the fiscal house left by outgoing Mayor Ballard and will come up with a plan within 90 days.

But, talking of a tax increase?

Too soon.  Especially since Hogsett supports a tax increase for public transit through a referendum this year.

Too soon.  And to mention building a new jail in the next breath is a bit of a jarring juxtaposition.  New jails don't finance themselves.

Hogsett said at his inauguration that there is a $50 M structural deficit - meaning the City-County takes in $50 M less than it must spend each year.  In McQuaid's piece, Councillor Jack Sandlin says the Council Democrats and Mayor Ballard agreed to spend down the fund balances for the last few years until we are at the unhappy place where "we don't have fund balances to spend down anymore...".

Well, I beg to differ with both gentlemen.

I pulled a few numbers from the 2012-2016 budgets to examine the changes in fund balances from January to December, and to see how the estimates of fund balances changed before and after the year's budget was passed.   The first is how much of a deficit the City-County expected or did run each year, and the second is how well they estimated how much money would be in the bank at the end of the year.

For those who don't like graphs and numbers, the bottom line is that, while we have been treated to expectations of deficit spending each year from 2011 through 2016, we have not actually spent more than we took in (after money from the sale of the water/sewer utilities is accounted for).  In addition, projections of future fund balances made before the budget is finalized, always get substantially improved a year later.

Every year the budget process begins mid-summer.  Year end fund balances are estimated at that time.  So, the numbers are estimates of money coming in and money going out in  6- 18 months in advance.  The budget book contains a summary of the previous few years' budgets, moving from 'adopted budget' to 'revised budget' to 'actual budget' as the years progress.  I pulled these numbers and found that the adopted budget nearly always predicted deficit or near-deficit spending each year.  By the time actual revenue and expenditure numbers where known, the bleak picture had not developed.

Let me pause for one second to note that I am using 'deficit spending' to mean spending more money than you take in.  This means that the year end fund balances should go down between January and December if there is deficit spending.

The numbers for changes in fund balance I used are those reported after one-time money is accounted for.  For instance, the water and sewer utilities were sold in 2011 - giving the City a huge cash influx.  That money was spent over time on infrastructure and cricket fields and $80 M was set aside in a 'fiscal stability fund', intended to recession-proof the City's AAA bond rating.

Below are the expected and actual changes in fund balance over the last few budget years as reported in the annual budget book.

As you can see, while the predictions of fund balance changes were consistent with deficit spending, the actual fund balance changes have been positive - meaning we spent less than we took in.  Of course, we await the actual fund balance changes for the 2015 and 2016 budget years.

Here we see that the estimated value of fund balances actually increase when recalculated after the budget passes.  The budget books don't report the actual fund balances, so I can only show you the two predictions.  I include this information only to note that the doom and gloom estimates at budget time don't hold up - at least if the last few years are any gauge.

True, nearly $40 M was taken from the consolidated downtown TIF in 2012 - but that was when the City was trying to wean itself off the infusion of funds Obama sent out to municipalities across the nation as the Great Recession settled in - they had gotten used to the money and the feds weren't sending as much by 2012.

True, the latest budgets have been 'balanced' with 'management reserves' - forced savings across the enterprise.  But, a simple budget cut would accomplish the same thing, as budgets were crafted with the expectation that 'savings' would be captured by years end.  So, its not exactly overspending the revenues.

Taxpayers have endured one tax increase after another - the latest round supposedly for public safety.  Yet, its hard to track whether or not these tax increases have gone to the expenses the public was told they would. We will soon have a referendum on a tax increase for public transit.  Stormwater management fees have gone up and will do so automatically for a while.  Water rates - up.  Sewer rates - up.

The last few months of the Ballard regime saw tens of millions of dollars that weren't budgeted, spent on unwise contracts signed without any public review.  These monies may cost us, but surely should not be used to claim any 'structural deficit'.  Unwise spending on unwise contracts should be avoided in the first place.

If the Hogsett administration is looking to make some changes to the way things are done for the benefit of the fiscal health of the City, I would offer the following suggestions:
Assign a sunset date to the consolidated downtown TIF, so future mayors and taxpayers have the financial resources the TIF was supposed to create. 
Ditch the idea of a new jail until the resources are identified and a tax hike is demonstrated as unnecessary to make ends meet or to fund the jail.  Neither should it be financed with job loss.
Change the 'management reserve' system of budgeting and replace it with a 5% across the board cut - its the same thing, but deficit spending would be harder to confuse with spending within one's means.
Pull jobs from high priced lawyers and consultants and cultivate those resources in house.  Review all contributions to local not-for-profits that do work for the City that could be done by City employees at a fraction of the salary.
It will be interesting to see what Hogsett's people come up with.

But, for right now, its too soon to hint about tax increases.  The data just aren't there that any structural deficit exists.

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