Our Opinion: Numbers, not words, tell city budget story

Jefferson City’s budget forecast is quantified gloom.

Revenues for the upcoming fiscal year are projected to decline by 12 percent, according to a budget proposal unveiled last week by City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus.

A projected $5 million drop in general revenue includes expectation that sales tax revenues will be flat, and both property tax and utility tax revenues will decline.

In his budget message, Nickolaus wrote: “I am forecasting sales tax (34 percent of revenue) will remain flat. Property taxes and utility taxes (combined 59 percent of revenue) are projected to decrease.”

Later, he added: “I would emphasize that the city must begin to seek new revenue sources” — a phrase that is government-speak for tax increases.

Why is Jefferson City anticipating gloom when the nation, state and other Missouri cities are expecting an economic upswing?

The official rationale is that Jefferson City is unique. Explanations are local sales taxes will lag behind increases experienced elsewhere; property taxes collections are expected to decline; and frugal customers will conserve energy.

The numbers, however, show significant gaps in that story.

The proposed 2014 budget, in comparison to the current budget, lists.

• No change in sales and use taxes, at $9.7 million.

• A decline in franchise and utility taxes, from $7,385,000 to $7,170,000, for a difference of $215,000.

• A decline in property taxes from $5,221,000 to $5,209,000 for a difference of $12,000.

The total reduction is about a quarter of a million dollars, well below the projected $5 million decrease in general revenue.

So, where’s the big money?

“The majority of grant revenue has been removed from the budget, along with associated expenses,” Nickolaus wrote in his budget message.

The numbers illustrate the difference. Federal grants for 2013 were $1,748,95, in contrast to the $348,200 projected for next year, for a revenue drop of more than $1.4 million.

We have no quarrel with eliminating grant funding from the budget. The inclusion in past years may help explain the $1.68 million shortfall the city experienced this year.

In addition, the $1.68 million shortfall in this year’s budget represents money not included in the 2014 proposal.

Nickolaus conceded his budget proposal is “conservative.”

We project conservative budgeting will help the city avoid a repeat of the shortfall debacle. And, if revenues exceed projections, city officials will claim the budgetary high ground and boast about their frugal, efficient and effective policies.

We’re willing to endure the grandstanding if it helps extinguish talk of tax increases.

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