City needs to make more cuts

By Observer editorial February 22, 2011 02:13 pm
The La Grande City Council is faced with a tough predicament in dealing with the projected budget shortfall the city will face this year and in coming years. A long-term budget solution committee came up with some recommendations and the city council agreed to some of them. But the fact is that reducing the projected deficits will not be easy. The committee recommended, and the council agreed, to see if voters are willing to annex the north part of the city to garner more tax revenue, though the estimates really don’t amount to much. Formation of a park district to offset city park and recreation expenses is another strategy the council chose. The council rejected a proposal to increase franchise fees. Both the proposed annexation and formation of a park district are longshots, at best.

Annexing that part of the city in the urban growth boundary beyond the city limits sounds, at first glance, like a simple solution to at least part of the revenue shortfall. But even if the residents in north La Grande
wouldn’t mind trading the higher sewer and water fees they pay for higher city taxes and improved services, it’s not likely that the mindset of the region has changed much in the past 10 years — the last time the city tried annexation.

Formation of a park district might have a better chance, but trying to pass any new taxes these days is difficult. Voters would have to approve the formation of a district and establishment of a tax base. Park districts make sense in a lot of areas, but convincing city voters that a district could better serve city residents than the current structure would be challenge. The fact that the cost of a district wouldn’t be offset by a decrease in city taxes would be the biggest hurdle to overcome. The city’s best hope would be that the park and recreation programs, including Veterans Memorial Pool, have a wide enough appeal that a majority of people in the outlying areas would be supportive.

None of the potential solutions will be easy fixes. To meet the projected shortfalls, the city is going to have to reduce its expenses. To get the biggest bang for the buck, city leaders will need to go back to employees and seek some level of contract concessions. Call it shared sacrifice. It’s the same kind of solution that enabled many private companies to weather the Great Recession we’ve been mired in for nearly three years. It’s the only potential solution that carries with it the possibility of substantially reducing costs.

The council is going to have to look at all options. Employee concessions, a.k.a. shared sacrifices, would be preferable to laying off employees and cutting whole programs. Hopefully both sides will be able to come to terms that make the best sense for the city with the least impact on employees. The city is going to need to show taxpayers that it is willing to make more cuts.