It’s hard to have the one-person-can-make-a-difference kind of optimism so central to utopian presentations of government like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but the City of Eau Claire’s current financial situation is making it so.
The Aug. 27 City Budget Alert forum was a banner evening in terms of turnout, its organizers noted sarcastically, as about five members of the media and five city officials were joined by a whopping five concerned residents. Previous meetings at RCU and Northstar Middle School yielded less than that, and the public comment time concerning the subject during city council meetings has been less than fruitful.
“It’s a challenge re-establishing the relationship with citizens and government,” said City Manager Mike Huggins, who led the forum, “because there’s the passive attitude that ‘Why should I be there? They’re going to decide it on their own, anyway.’ We have to overcome that.”
The city is simply looking for ideas, because otherwise drastic cuts will need to be made for an anticipated shortfall of between $1.2 and $1.7 million next year.
Keep reading for the full – if depressing – report.
“Over a number of years, the relationship between local governments and the state has failed to keep up with costs,” said Huggins.
In 1996, the state budget sharing formula awarded Eau Claire $11 million, but in 2010 will give about $7.1 million. Back then, Eau Claire relied on the state funds for 48 percent of its services, but now only does so for 23 percent, and that number is dwindling as the state’s $6.5 billion deficit continues growing.
“We need to clean house in Madison, because that’s where the problems are,” noted former city council member Dennis Jenson, who added that the city is being punished for being frugal and efficient, not to mention the flawed revenue sharing formula and levy limits.
The city officials agreed that it would have the most impact, but warned the audience not to hold their breath, as they’ve tirelessly lobbied with the state on an annual basis to no avail.
The city’s most immediate problem is that residents are failing to contact them. Perhaps that’s because inviting them to meetings isn’t enough, and an online or mail poll would work better.
No matter how the city tries to overcome this problem, the fiscal crisis will remain and officials will have to get the attention of its residents or risk a riot when it cuts something vital.
“It comes down to what are you willing to sacrifice? … Or what are you willing to save?” council member Bob Von Haden asked.
This isn’t just about balancing the budget, Huggins said. Simply cutting road repairs for a year would save a ton of money, for instance, but where would the city be the next year? What they need is a sustainable plan for providing services annually.
Things on the potential chopping block include: community organization funding (for places like The State Theatre and Chippewa Valley Museum), supervised time at rinks/parks, snow plow routes, seal coating roads, and library hours.
Things the few audience members suggested to save/get money were: attracting more businesses, restricting overtime, reducing city office hours, delaying capital improvement projects (like roads), and better attracting tourism.
Of the many things the city may try, Huggins mentioned sponsorship opportunities like advertising on buses or in the bills the city mails to residents. “But the question is how far do you go? Does city hall become the Pepsi Government Building?”
The city has already made a laundry list of decisions to make/save money, some to the chagrin of its residents. But until enough people attend these meetings or contact a city official, they only stand to get worse.
The city is having another public forum on the topic on Sept. 10 at Northstar Middle School at 5:30pm.