Budget, Books, D.A.R.E., Insurance and Grass seed

So what happened at the Common Council meeting on November 18?  A lot more than what you'll read in the Journal-Sentinel or even the Brookfield News.  So, let's get started.

Budget & Books

The 2009 city budget was the topic of a public hearing and was ultimately adopted.  By far the most controversial item was restoring $50,000 to the library materials budget and raising property taxes to cover it.  That motion was made by 6th District Alderman Chris Blackburn who is also the aldermanic member of the Library Board.  It was seconded by 4th District Alderman Steve Ponto.  The cut was made by a 4-3 vote of the finance committee, described in my blog of October 22.  The argument by 2ndMunicipality Materials District Alderman Bob Reddin to cut is that the Brookfield had far more money in its material budget than "comparable" cities and could thus take the cut.  Alderman Sutton, Jerry Mellone and Lisa Mellone agreed with him.  Ald. Reddin produced a page at  the council meeting he claimed was provided by Director of Library Service Schaefer showing how the HAPLR score for comparable communities with smaller budgets was only slightly less, thus proving his point.  Unfortunately, there are a few problems with that argument.

First, the book budget slashers thought they could force the library to spend (or in this case, cut) the the library budget in a specific way.  In fact, state statute 43.58(1) states the Library Board has exclusive control over all expenditures.  Thus, for example, the Library Board could have eliminated Sunday hours during the school year, or eliminated the part time person who leads children's story time, or any combination of other things to balance their books.  State law was written that way to provide a check and balance on the power of the aldermen to change the library without truly understanding what the effect of the change would be.  This was explained at the October budget meetings.

Wisconsin Library Service Record Data for 2007
Municipality Materials Budget Circulation HAPLR
Brookfield $374,213 673,169 812
Wauwatosa $257,393 778,770 799
Neenah $247,770 812,979 783
Glendale $91,296 328,910 782
Sun Prairie $173,953 495,715 762
Manitowoc $260,682 620,165 738
Franklin $85,000 471,442 706
Menomonee Falls $170,194 369,263 704
Sheboygan $440,741 795,453 704
West Bend $240,026 602,695 701
New Berlin $192,899 387,997 696
Mequon $91,455 322,300 691
Fond du Lac $297,950 772,506 672
Beloit $230,221 439,893 667
Greenfield $123,892 322,143 654
Sturgeon Bay $136,214 353,695 642
Oak Creek $96,400 266,263 636
Shawano $105,854 338,561 586
Hudson $86,255 292,677 555
Salem $136,012 182,449 506

Second,  the rating sheet was actually presented by me during the October meeting, not the library staff.  It was produced by Tom Hennen, who is the "H" in HAPLR.  As I pointed out in the meeting, the opponents of buying "too many" books didn't even know what HAPLR was, yet they were quoting it to prove their point.  For those of you who aren't familiar with public library ratings, HAPLR stands for Hennen's American Public Library Ratings.  It is a system of rating public libraries by creating  a single score based publicly available information.  The factors are weighted so that, for example, spending per capita is considered three time more likely to indicate (not the same as guarantee!) a good library than the number of people visiting per hour. 

If you cut the materials budget (buy fewer books), you clearly reduce the "Percent Budget to materials" factor.  However, you also reduce "Expenditure per capita" and "Materials Expenditure Per capita" will eventually reduce "Volumes per Capita" since you're replacing fewer worn out books and losing ground relative to other libraries.  When people find you have fewer of the new best sellers they borrow less.  Since residents have less reason to visit, the "Visits per capita" drops as do all the circulation measures.  Admittedly that's not an overnight plunge, but then if you cut the book budget once, what's to stop you from cutting it again? 

I found the claim by Ald. Reddin at the Council meeting and by Ald. Lisa Mellone at the October meeting that the score wouldn't change, so the cut is justified, just proved their total lack of understanding of the HAPLR score.  Given a choice, I prefer decisions to be made on solid research and facts, not spouting numbers randomly.

HAPLR Factor Weight
Expenditure per capita 3
Percent Budget to materials 2
Materials Expenditure Per capita 2
FTE staff per 1,000 population 2
Periodicals per 1000 residents 1
Volumes per Capita 1
Cost per circulation (low to high) 3
Visits per capita 3
Collection turnover 2
Circulation per FTE Staff Hour 2
Circulation per Capita 2
Reference per capita 2
Circulation per hour 2
Visits per hour 1
Circulation per visit 1

Ald. Ponto stated "This is an issue that I've been contacted on by people who don't normally contact me.   The library is a significant part of the quality of life, which people expect in Brookfield."

Ald. Blackburn stated the library had been singled out.  I pointed out that at no point had anyone suggested cutting the Senior Center or the Fourth of July Parade even though everyone agrees those are less essential, for example, ambulance service.  The library opponents apparently believe that reducing the book purchases, a true decrease in services, is just fine. 

7th District Ald. Lowerr made a rare statement claiming that many of her district's residents believe building the library in 1972 was a waste of money, that the addition of 1990 was yet another waste and that the library should either have stayed in the south wing of city hall or been combined with the Brookfield Central High School library.  When I served on the library board during the high school referendums we briefly discussed the merits of a combined library building and realized there are huge problems with it.  Perhaps that will be a future blog topic.  In any event, buying fewer books because you don't like an irreversible decision made 36 years ago doesn't strike me as good public policy.

Voting to restore the library book budget were Owen, Balzer, Garvens, Ponto, Nelson, Mahkorn, Berg, Blackburn

Voting to keep the cut were Sutton, Carnell, Reddin, Jerry Mellone, Lisa Mellone, Lowerr

Library prepares for cuts, Brookfield News, November 19, 2008

Council restores library budget cuts, Brookfield News, November 20, 2008

League of Wisconsin Municipalities on Library Governance

Budget & D.A.R.E.

1st District Alderman Bill Carnell made a motion to eliminate the D.A.R.E. program, shifting its $25,000 of tax money to the library to cover half the cost of the reinstated materials budget.  The motion died for lack of a second.  You may recall former judge Steinberg's defense of the program in his blogs of October 11.  Clearly Ald. Carnell is willing to test the third rail of Brookfield politics.  I haven't heard anyone complain about Ald. Carnell's statements.  Is Ald. Carnell on to something?  Should D.A.R.E. be cut?

So, here are the (almost) final rates.  Please keep in mind that these are estimates since some factors such as state aid are not finalized.  Also, this is only the city portion of the tax bill and does not include school taxes, county taxes, lottery tax credit, etc.  

House Value  
Year Rate $274,000 $335,000 $451,400 Notes
2008 $5.1515 $1,411.51 $1,725.75 $2,325.39 This year's budget - paid Dec 2007
2009 (Original) $5.3155 $1,456.45 $1,780.69 $2,399.42 Mayor's original proposal
2009 (committee) $5.2937 $1,450.47 $1,773.39 $2,389.57 committee - Cut books, gas, training
2009 (final) $5.3026 $1,452.91 $1,776.37 $2,393.59 restore books

Alderman Insurance

While preparing for budget deliberations I quickly saw that the 15% health insurance cost increase was a huge strain on the budget and showed no signs of lessening.  Two thirds of city employees are covered by union contracts that call for their making a premium payment of about 10%. (Yes, I know, but raising that is a contract negotiation and many area cities pay it all so Brookfield is actually ahead of the game.)  The non-union employees (includes the Mayor and most of the people in city hall) pay 20% of their premium, which is comparable to many private businesses.  The one special group is the alderman and municipal judge who can buy health insurance at 100% of the premium. 

On the surface that sounds fair since there is no tax payer premium subsidy.  But if you dig deeper, you see that's not the whole story.  A family health insurance plan (actually there are several to chose from with varying selections of doctors, etc.) is about $17,000/year.  About $2,000 is spent on plan administration.  That means if an alderman and his family collectively incur more than about $15,000 in health care expenses in a year, the money comes from the pool of premiums from all the full time city employees. 

No alderman really expects the job to be his only income, yet they can pull insurance money away from the employees who work full time for the city.  If the pool runs out of money, the city general fund has to bail it out, which has happened at least twice in the last 7 years.  In addition,  part time employees who don't work enough hours (it's complicated, but roughly half time in most cases) do not even have access to insurance at any cost.  The proposal exempted aldermen who qualify for coverage without being alderman, such as city retirees.

Suppose an alderman and his (or her) family get into a car accident.  Think that could run more than $1%,000 in doctor's bills?  There is a stop loss policy that caps the claim at $60,000/person, so up to $45,000/person could get pulled out of the pool.  Of course, that drives up the cost of the stop loss insurance which is about 10% of the premium and rocketed up 29% this year, compared to "only" 15% for the base policy.

Ald. Ponto thought this was unfair since it would change elected officials compensation in mid-term, not at the start of their next term.  The city attorney stated that state law restricts salary changes but not not these benefits.  Also, eliminating insurance access might stop a self employed person from running for office.  I claim that person is running out of greed and self interest, not public service.  While the proposal would have eliminated the insurance on January 1, 2009, federal COBRA law would allow alderman now using the benefit to continue it for 18 months or June 2010 which is after the April 2010 election.  The four current users would have been unaffected.

My proposal failed, but in a very unusual way.  Ald. Carnell and Lisa Mellone take the dental insurance.  Ald. Jerry Mellone takes the family (he and his wife) health insurance.  Ald. Balzer felt the proposal affected him since it exempted retired city employees such as himself.  All four abstained but, as per Robert's Rules, were counted as part of the quorum.  Ald. Garvens, Ponto, Nelson and Lowerr voted against the proposal.  Ald. Sutton, Reddin, Owen, Mahkorn, Berg and Blackburn approved.  Thus, only 6 of the 14 members of the quorum approved the measure, 2 short of the 8 required and the motion failed.  Ald. Lowerr made no statement, though her vote clearly benefited her seat mate and good friend Lisa Mellone.

So, what do you think?  Should aldermen be able to buy the city's health insurance even though their claims could pull money away from city employees and, in extreme cases, require tens of thousands of property tax dollars to be spent to cover the claims?

Officials could retain benefits, Brookfield News, October 19, 2008

Grass Seed

When the city installs water main or resurfaces a road, the front yards of homeowners is almost always torn up.  At the end of the project the city smooths the dirt out and plants grass seed.  I have frequently fielded phone calls from residents who say the restoration is not good enough.  One even called it "legalized vandalism".  My proposal was to change the turf restoration policy to truly restore the yard.  i.e.  take a photo before the work starts, then plants grass, fertilize, water, etc. until that original appearance is back.  My colleagues disagreed, saying that it would be too expensive that that homeowners should be responsible for their own yards.  So, while a minor policy change was made, I voted against it as not going far enough.

So, the next time your front yard gets torn up by a city project, live with it.  A lopsided majority of the aldermen said so.

Guidelines for Yard Restoration OK'd, Brookfield New, October 19, 2008

Parting Comment

Everyone expects their city to provide safety with a good police force and a highly skilled ambulance crew.  Everyone expects the city to provide safe water to drink.  Everyone expects the city to fill the potholes and plow the snow.  So what makes one city better to live in than the next one?  What does "Quality of Life" really mean?  I claim it's things like a well stocked library and a D.A.R.E. program and public parks with playgrounds and walking trails and Fourth of July parades and senior centers and a bunch of other things that have little to do with public safety but everything to do with enjoying your home town.

Are Brookfield's taxes really so high that all those "non essential frills" should be eliminated?  My claim is that cutting those things will result in lower taxes that are still not zero and less enjoyment for yourself.  Is that what you want?

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