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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009 04:03 am

Council can solve fiscal woes now

Tough times call for tough decisions. That axiom has never been truer than it is now for the Springfield City Council as it deliberates approval of a new city budget. As chair of Mayor Tim Davlin’s blue ribbon commission on city finances, I would like to urge the council to consider the recommendations that our group spent nearly a year putting together.

Our commission had no political agenda and no political ax to grind. We simply came to the table with open minds, rolled up our sleeves, and set about to craft solutions that would address serious city budget problems, not just for the short term, but for a decade. Our current budget shortfall is $12 million; it will double in 10 years. Rising obligations for the police and fire pensions drive much of this.

Our main goal was to find alternatives to increasing the property tax by 50 to 100 percent or increasing the sales tax by another .25 percent. Here are our recommendations:

Cuts to the police and fire departments totaling $1.6 million are feasible if phased in over 10 years and will not impinge on the city’s public safety capability. Mike Norris, public works director, has already laid out a sound plan that implements the $1 million in cuts we recommended for that department. Closing the two library branches can save another $400,000, while identifying a future revenue source that will shore up the main library’s operations.

Springfield has a jewel in CWLP. And it is about to see a tremendous growth in revenues as Dallman IV comes on line, bringing a 10-fold increase in certain annual sales. Springfield has for decades taken in money from CWLP in lieu of taxes that it would pay if it were a private entity. Recognizing the fruits of our recent investment in new power capacity can generate around $10 million a year, without challenging future city rate structures or capital needs.

And finally, we are suggesting a boost in the telecommunications tax that would increase a $50 monthly phone bill by $2.50. The new rate of 6 percent will be equal to that in Normal, Champaign, Peoria, Decatur, Rockford and Urbana, as well as other nearby smaller communities. Those new revenues will fund the library.

One can probably find fault with any of these recommendations. But there isn’t a Plan B. Given the scope of our budget shortfall, the only alternatives are meat ax budget cuts that will severely impact vital city services, or property tax increases that could nearly double the current levy.

The commission offered a roadmap for the council. We hope they take us up on our offer.

Timothy S. Bramlet, chair of Mayor Davlin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on City Finances, was president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois for 12 years. He currently owns his own legislative consulting firm in Springfield.

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