As I sat down to write this column, my initial plans had been to focus on the holidays approaching and discuss the good that has come our way in the past year. Blessings that abound in our lives even in times of sadness was going to be the main theme. Then, a city council meeting happened and the actions taken are so egregiously outside the best interests of the long-term financial health of our municipality that any responsible columnist who writes about public affairs couldn’t ignore them.
With the executive branch officials reporting that the city is in debt to the tune of approximately a quarter of a million dollars and deferring payment on current bills to existing vendors for months at a time, the City Council voted by the slim majority of six yes votes to provide an $850 “one-time incentive” to all full-time city employees and $425 for all part-time employees. The incentive is often referred to colloquially as a Christmas Bonus. This will cost the city approximately $104,000.
I understand that no one wants to be branded Ebenezer Scrooge at this time of year. But public officials must act in a fiscally prudent fashion so that the city can continue to provide services and leave behind a community we can be proud of for future generations. When I was on the School Board, which serves for $0 compensation, I was proud we did that even when it wasn’t popular. As a result, when I left the School Board the district was financially healthy. It was that way because sometimes we said no on things like raises, additional positions, etc. Did that result in having to pay a political cost at times? Yes. But doing the right thing is somethings more important than reelection. And, for the City Council, doing the right thing should not have been politically hard since some weren’t returning because they had lost and others wouldn’t face another election until 2020, which is an eternity in politics. Instead, selfishness stood above selflessness. Short term gratification from inside City Hall took precedence over the long term health of the community.
Everyone would like to be the good guy and give pay raises, create a job whenever someone wants one, and hand out gifts in December like Santa Claus. But the city simply can’t afford it if we are to provide the things we need in terms of infrastructure, sanitation, crime prevention, code enforcement, water. sewer, parks and recreation.
The citizens of this community have demonstrated they are willing to pay on numerous occasions for a better community. In the past decade, the voters have passed a two-cent permanent sales tax to fund the city and the necessary property tax increases to fund desperately needed facilities for our public schools, which must succeed if our community is to have a bright future. Everyone knows that more revenue is going to have to be a part of the equation for the city to be able to start tackling this city’s infrastructure needs. When asking the community to sacrifice, the government needs to show that it is operating as efficiently as possible. I am proud we did that while I was on the School Board before going to the voters for the taxes we needed for the high school facilities. When we went to the voters, we had already closed three schools, eliminated 100 positions, and saved enough money to build the Eliza Miller Building at J. F. Wahl. Contrast that with being in debt and passing out money at Christmas. It’s arithmetic that doesn’t pass any test. How will the public have any confidence that the sacrifices they make in terms of increased water rates, sanitation rates, and sewer rates that must be on the table as part of any sound plan to make the city financially sound when these kinds of choices are made.
If we are to turn our community around, we have got to have sound financial planning and strong leadership. The demagoguery against those who try to offer it must stop so that all individuals in political positions can have some expectation that they will be supported for making the tough calls instead of being vociferously castigated and run out of office. Our future hangs in the balance. Our city has major needs, particularly in terms of its infrastructure. Fixing those will not be cheap. We need our community to support the measures that we know need to be taken. I believe our community will if our leaders demonstrate that they will share the sacrifice as well. I said last week we must all do our part. That goes for the politicians and the government employees as well. I believe Helena-West Helena can make it and that is worth our collective sacrifice to get it there.