November 7, 2011

How to spread budget doubts without precisely lying

Don't let the Republicans frighten you.

When I first followed a Dryden budget closely, I thought I was really going to be able to nail the then-Republican Town Board. True, they weren't raising taxes, but they were appropriating huge amounts of money out of the fund balance. Here was an obvious tool for demolishing the Republican candidates in 2005 or 2007...

Looking at reality, though, this story turned out to be pretty completely bogus. Yes, the Board was budgeting using a huge chunk of fund balance to keep taxes stable while covering the needs of government, but that money was coming back every year - even coming back with extra.

The large fund balances mostly reflected government that hadn't figured out how to separate out its checking account from its savings account. It also reflected over-budgeting followed by under-spending - Dryden government has remained pretty frugal, though budgets include lots of buffering to avoid having to make midyear course corrections if the price of, say, diesel or asphalt suddenly skyrockets.

Climbing pensions, healthcare, New York State's strange wobbling, and the reality of an economy in trouble have taken a toll on that fund balance - but it's a small one. Why? Because even in these more difficult years, the Town has still spent a lot less than was allocated. It's been difficult to follow the Comptroller's mandate to reduce our fund balance.

The Republicans avoid a flat-out simple lie by saying things like "the last 3 budgets have called for spending approximately $4.5 million from savings." They neglect to tell you that the last 10 budgets have called for spending around $15 million from savings - and didn't spend it.

How do the more recent numbers look?

  • In 2008, the Town Budget called for spending $1,321,000 from fund balance. Even in that crazy economic disaster year, they only spent $214,000 of that.

  • In 2009, the budget called for spending $1,884,329 from savings. Not only did they not spend it, they added $308,430 to the fund balance.

  • In 2010, the budget called for spending $2,381,718 from fund balance. They still only spent $959,246 of that - much of which (as I'll describe below) will come back, some with interest.

  • In 2011, the budget call for spending $2,674,137. We don't yet know how much will come back, but as sales tax revenue is looking much healthier than the Town budgets, it's a pretty safe bet that there won't be a deficit this year.

Terrified yet? No? Well, that's good. Once you get past the bumper sticker slogan and what amounts to double-billing, there isn't much to fear.

So where did lots of unexpected money go in 2010?

As the Republicans put it, "$688,000 spent on a one-time purchase of development rights for 1 farm." What they don't tell you is that the money is supposed to be from the State of New York, but in their own budget issues they were delayed. The Town decided to follow through on its obligation to a Republican dairy farmer who's leased his land and supports hydrofracking, covering the $688K until the state comes through with it - hopefully next year.

$259K went to the pension system - an early payment that earned us a $2K discount and will take pressure off future budgets.

$114,000 went to the Tompkins County Health Consortium to get things running. That money will also come back, with 3.4% interest - a lot more than savings accounts are yielding at the moment. It's part of a key project to reduce healthcare costs over the long run, by putting Dryden employees into a larger group of insured people.

$25,000 isn't coming back, except through your enjoyment of libraries. It was a one-time grant to the Southworth Library to help them get the building set up.

I'm sorry this took so long to explain, but the Republicans are clearly counting on it being more difficult to explain public finance than to assault it with scary-sounding slogans.

Don't let the Republicans frighten you.

Posted by simon at November 7, 2011 7:02 AM in ,
Note on photos


Hilary Lambert said:

The scary Repubs in Dryden sure have convinced at least two people - the guys who sit in the van at the gas station at 13/366.

One of them got out and walked down to our roadside rally last week and screamed and swore at Joe O that he didn't understand what a deficit is.

He made liberal, repeated use of the f word, and I don't mean fracking!

Joe just held onto his sign - THERE IS NO DEFICIT, PERIOD - and kept smiling.

When the guys in the van departed, they drove by screaming at us through their rolled up windows.

drombit said:

Thank you Simon. Your report makes me wish I lived in Dryden.
Nicely done!