Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remember, It's Your Money

My anonymous "fan" from my previous budget post is back, this time with some comments on my budget update congratulating Ada County residents on a higher tax rate.

This "fan" says that my $1,000,000 cut would have reduced the budget by "only" 1.6%. I suppose that a cut so small is not worth doing, although if every one of the taxing entities in Ada County reduced their budgets by 1.6%, that would have ended up as a major reduction in people's property tax bills. But actually, the reduction I proposed was 3.15% since it only reduced the property tax portion of the budget. If you reduce $31.7 million by $1 million, that equals 3.15%.

However, even if it was only 1.6%, it's the principle of the thing. Ada County citizens are seeing the equity in their houses go down, their wages go down, their hours of employment go down, their businesses close, their neighbors or themselves losing their jobs, etc. (Yes "fan", these are generalities, but that's the trend.) Yet, here we have a government agency that feels it knows better how to spend your money than you do. And it IS your money - never forget that and don't let government officials forget that either.

I really believe that my proposed cuts should have been made. Lobbyists, non litigating lawyers and publicity people are luxuries that taxpayers should not have to fund - whether we have the money or not.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Higher Tax Rate, Brought to you by ACHD

Congratulations! Every property owner in Ada County is now the proud owner of a higher tax rate courtesy of the Ada County Highway District Commission.

The budget, passed on a 4-1 vote, collects the same amount of taxes as last year, even as the average price of real estate has fallen by 15%. But not to worry. The service will be just as impeccable as always.

Commissioner Rebecca Arnold says that it's important for us to have the $680,000 "communications" budget because all the advertising helps "our citizens" to be aware of what's going on in the district and to be aware of meetings. This is a plausible argument if you do not look past the actual numbers. With a staff of seven people, advertising is not the bulk of the budget.

Commissioner Huber says not to worry since we will be reviewing the budget monthly or quarterly and making adjustments at those times. Of course, this will not impact the collection of property taxes in any way since that ship sailed last night. You are stuck with your new higher tax rate.

And Commissioner McKee was very appreciative of all the hard work the staff did in putting this together. She then related the very sad story of a single mother working for ACHD who was concerned she might not get her overtime.

I did my riff on the state of the economy in Ada County, presented my $1 million in savings and was promptly voted down.

I may have been on the losing side of the vote - nothing new in any one's voting career - but the real losers are the taxpayers of Ada County.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hop on the Bus

While public transportation (busses) is not an ACHD responsibility, I do sit on the Valley Ride Transit regional authority board, along with about 500 others - no actually, it's only about 30 or 35.

So I thought it might be of interest to air the increases in ridership that ValleyRide has seen from April-June 2009 over the same period in 2008.

First, the total ridership has increased 15.3% from 315,202 riders to 355,541 riders. That is quite an increase. And at the same time bus ridership has increase, vehicular traffic on our roads has decreased 9%.

In the first nine months of FY2009 (Oct-Sept), bus ridership exceeded 1,000,000, actually 1.08 million. This is up 20.6% over the same period 2008.

The Boise/Garden City fixed line ridership has gone up 21.7%.

Nampa/Caldwell to Boise fixed line ridership has gone up 27.3%.

Obviously the economy plays a great part in the increases since it is cheaper to leave the driving to someone else. Hopefully VRT can build on this even in the better times.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Budget I Will Vote For

On August 26, 2009, ACHD will pass its budget. Chances are there will be little to no public testimony. While property taxes have fallen, the tax rate will rise. In November, after the election of course, property tax bills will show up in mailboxes and the land will be rife with gnashing of teeth and cursing the amount of property tax collected.

ACHD is not going to collect the 3% increase allowed by law, but nonetheless, I do not think our budget recognizes the severe problems that Ada County residents face.

I believe that we need to cut the property tax collection by $1,000,000 this year over last, rather than just let the tax rate float ever upwards to capture the same amount of taxes. This would amount to a 3% property tax cut for ACHD taxpayers. I don't know how this will fare with the other Commissioners, but I'm hopeful that it will be considered.

What cuts do I think should be made?

We subsidize Commuteride by $250,000 per year. It already is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars from the federal government. We reduced the Commuteride travel budget by $10,000 in July. This is a service that should be paid for by users. Savings $240,000

Our Legal Department has 3 very well paid attorneys who do not litigate. If we sue or are sued, we need to pay for outside lawyers. Either decrease by one attorney or do in house litigation. Savings $125,000

Our Communications Department has a budget of $680,000 and 7 employees, yet we still have to pay for outside help writing the Conehead column. While it's important to keep our website up, our main phone answered and the Tellus line manned for quick responses to the public, this budget is in place in large part because it is felt that "our side of the story needs to be told". This is an indulgence that needs to go. Savings $300,000.

We have a paid lobbyist. We also help to pay for a lobbyist through COMPASS and we pay dues to the Association of Highway Districts that also has a lobbyist. I've spoken with legislators who have not heard from our lobbyist on any issue and were not aware that we even had one. If necessary, Commissioners can lobby, the director can lobby, other staff can lobby. And there are always our association lobbyists. Savings $68,000

We have an overtime budget of $271,900. Two thirds of this is in our maintenance divisions and most is there for potential snow removal. However, we also have overtime in all other departments. We can shift the work week so that the weekends start the work week. That way, any call outs on Saturday or Sunday can be compensated for later in the week, eliminating overtime. We have also cross trained a number of inspectors , whose work is greatly diminished, to run heavy equipment. Overtime should really be unnecessary for the most part. Savings $257,000

Total savings $1,000,000

None of the above will affect the service to the general public. Maintenance will be done, the streets will be swept, the phones will be answered, the signals will turn from green to yellow to red.

All will not agree with my suggestions and that's fine. If these cuts are not to your liking, come to the budget "town hall" meeting on August 26 and present your own ideas. If you can't come, then e-mail a list. But to dismiss the idea of cutting taxes out of hand does a great disservice to the taxpayers.

NOTE: Many of these items have been discussed but not acted upon. As soon as the minutes are up on the ACHD website with the notes from the budget session, I'll create a link. It's here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Planned Communities

One of the issues I've been curious about since I came on the commission is the status of all the planned communities we've been hearing about for years. It turns out that some have been approved and are sort of building houses, some have gone nowhere and some are in what appears to be limbo.

What I find strange is that ACHD seems to just go along with what the land use agency (Ada County) approves, when in fact, I think ACHD holds the whip hand. Up until now ACHD has only recommended the proposed roadway improvements based on the planned community application and the traffic study submitted by the applicant. When the preliminary plat comes before ACHD, it seems like there is no saying no to the project even though the roads may be totally inadequate to accomodate traffic from the planned community. Remember however, that once a preliminary plat is approved, the development then has vested rights and the agency may not deny a final plat.

Further, if no work is performed on a preliminary plat, ACHD gives an extension automatically if Ada County says yes to the extension.

Apparently, ACHD has never said no to a planned community no matter how ill advised it is. The question is why? ACHD is the sole agency in Ada County responsible for the roads and I think it therefore has the right and the responsibility to ensure to the taxpayers of Ada County that these projects are not going to overburden the roads without providing immediate capacity. The capacity provided sometime in the future by impact fees or extraordinary impact fees is cold comfort to users of the crowded roads in the interim.

The most egregious example of an ill advised approval for a planned community is the Cliffs along Hwy 21. ACHD approved the first preliminary plat for 359 units in July 2006 and it has another 4 1/2 months before the extension expires. The dirty little secret about the Cliffs is that it has no access point to Warm Springs Ave so the potential owners of 359 units, if built, can never leave the property. Why was this ever approved? And since it's doubtful that the developers will receive access from ITD to Hwy 21 in 4 1/2 months, will ACHD be approving another extension? I certainly won't vote to do that. Even if Ada County grants another extension, ACHD should just say no.

The planned communities that have gone nowhere are Bryan's Run, Kuna-Mora, Mayfield Springs, Orchard Ranch, Pac West, Shadow Valley and Southern Cross-Roads. (We'll be having a contest soon to give a prize to whomever can say where in the world these projects are.)

The planned communities that are sort of building houses are Avimor (6 houses our of 229) and ...

The planned communities that are in limbo are Arbor Hills, Cartwright Ranch (620 lots), Cliffs (359 lots), Dry Creek Ranch (455 lots), and Vista (3,113 lots).

While it may seem clear from the above that planned communities' time has either come and gone or perhaps has yet to come (cause it's nowhere now), ACHD really needs to learn how to assess these projects and say no where appropriate.