What Does This Troll Have to do with Managerial Problem Solving?

 

Troll

This Troll is located under a bridge in Seattle, Washington several miles from Bill & Melinda Gates’ $68 million home. I saw it on a bus tour on Saturday. It is visited night and day by kids, families and sightseers. How could you resist the invitation to go look for the troll hiding under a bridge? You can see the pedestrian bridges coming down both sides. That’s a full-size VW in his left hand. The hubcap resides in his left eye. There is a road in front of the troll to see it by driving under the bridge.

But this is end the of a story. Let’s work our way back to the beginning. The troll is the product of a neighborhood contest. A group was formed to come up with an artsy idea, and this was the result. A grant was provided to construct this attraction. Great idea, right?

Yet the motivation wasn’t to support the arts. The purpose of this troll was to solve a problem. A very ugly problem. This was the site for nightly drug use at the height of heroin addictions in Seattle. Police detectives were being called to this location almost nightly to deal with overdose problems. If detectives were called, then you know this was a death-related call – the kind that sends a team of people seeking the cause of death and another team seeking the drug dealer or murderer, either the direct or indirect cause of death.

Let’s Enumerate the Team

At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s count off the people who might be involved in just one case like this. I’m sure I’m leaving some group out, but this is from memory.

  1. Police call takers and dispatchers.
  2. Police patrol squad.
  3. Police Detective Investigators.
  4. EMS.
  5. Public Hospital Staff.
  6. City Morgue.
  7. Pauper Burials.
  8. Crime Scene and Crime Lab Personnel.
  9. Jail Facilities and Personnel.
  10. County Criminal Court Facilities & Staffing.
  11. District Criminal Court Judge and Administrative Clerks.
  12. Two Criminal Bailiffs for Court.
  13. Two Criminal Bailiffs for Criminal Transport.
  14. A Court Reporter.
  15. Two Criminal District Attorneys & Investigative Staffs.
  16. Two Court Appointed Defense Attorneys.
  17. The Jury Fees & Lost Time for Jurors.
  18. Expert Testimonies.
  19. Prison Facilities & Personnel for Decades, perhaps.
  20. Probation Officers & Support Staff.

Back when I was the Dallas County Budget Officer in my early career, I priced out the cost of just one trial. It was staggering back then, so I can only image the sticker shock today.

May I remind you that I mentioned the calls for overdoses and murders were routine. And it was just for this one location.

So, what if this wasn’t such an easy place to do drugs? Oh, and did I mention this problem in turn was creating a blighted area well beyond the spot in question as do all neglected areas where crime is left to move in?

That’s what the City in general and this neighborhood in particular wanted to address.

There is always the conventional alternative, and that is to keep adding costs triggered by one murder multiplying into 20 different areas of specialty – all at premium costs. Can you imagine the General Fund budgets for the City and County governments bloating up? Much worse, the money would grow as the problem grew, but not a thing would necessarily be done to solve the problem.

How do you stop that one murder from happening?

Lights, people and traffic motivated to come see an attraction was their answer. An investment instead of an expense. Hey, the protective shelter for Mr. Troll was already there! And imagine this – an art project investment turns into an economic development stimulator as the immediate area was reclaimed without corporate welfare!

Comments & Conclusion

If your first response is that all this did is to move the drug users and dealers to another location, then you have just revealed something about yourself. You are worthless as a problem solver.

Here is what I do know. The tax caps and cuts that are coming are real and will likely be severe, especially as they become cumulative over a period of a few years and then compounded by an economic downturn where real losses cannot be restored politically.

It’s. Going. To. Happen!

Here is a companion comment and a few questions. How many people working for you right now would be hired/re-hired today knowing what you know about them and their productivity right now? For each one of them, what are you doing to train/re-train, mentor, motivate, discipline or terminate? How many of them have 1 year’s of experience 20 times vs 20 years of continued growth in responsibility and contribution?

How many are good people, but they have just become way too expensive as the numerator has climbed with raises and generous benefits while the denominator has diminished with extra holidays, vacation days and sick leave days?

More than once in my career I have had city managers and department heads yelp like they had their legs chopped out from under them from a cutback – only to tell me privately that it was one of the best things that could have happened to make them step up to earn that part of their paycheck that includes making hard decisions they had been hesitating to make.

On The Other Hand

If your first response from the Troll story is that the demand side of your workload has got to be addressed, especially for services that require 24x7x365 coverage, then I apologize for scolding and only wish to provide encouragement.

I don’t like the way things are going with citizens and elected officials caring less about who gets hurt, that there is only one priority – cut taxes. I am working hard to provide analyses to show the fiscal impact for every city, county and school district in Texas. You should have already seen my report.

But you know what? They don’t care about facts. And I hear that nothing sets them off like being threatened with the consequences to public safety. I’ve even heard that one State Senator responds to that threat with “sometimes a few people may have to die.”

Here’s the deal. There are only a dozen or so ways to balance a budget. Improving Productivity is the first and Raising Property Taxes is last. LFM

Budget Balance Options

(I’m writing a more complete blog on these alternatives as soon as I can)

  1. Improve Productivity. $Impact: High.
  2. Defer Needed Spending (kick the can down the road, compounding costs) $Impact: High.
  3. Trim Expenditures. $Impact: Low.
  4. Reduce Program Service Levels. $Impact: Medium.
  5. Eliminate Programs Altogether. $Impact: Usually High.
  6. Don’t Start New Programs Requested by Citizens. $Impact: High.
  7. Refuse Unfunded Mandates. $Impact: Medium to High.
  8. Use One-Time Solutions (i.e. Reduce Reserves). $Impact: Medium.
  9. Shift the Burden (ie. To employees or another government). $Impact: Medium.
  10. Charge New Fees for Service. $Impact: Low to Medium.
  11. Increase Existing Fees for Services. $Impact: Low to Medium.
  12. Raise Property Taxes. $Impact: Medium to High.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Do We Wait for Animal Control to Reach a Crisis Before We Act?

Actually, I could have replaced “Animal Control” with a blank since this question applies to hundreds of situations in government.

But today I want to focus on just animal shelters in particular. As most of you know, I read from a few hundred (246 to be exact) Texas newspapers and their suburban editions each day. I look for stories that are of interest to city officials, city managers and mayors in particular.

I have known for decades that few topics consistently make the Top 5 as often as animal control issues. I live in McKinney, a city of 180,000 people, meaning just about that many people have an interest or downright big investment in pets.

In recent years, there is one common topic that pervades the Texas headlines. It is the overcrowding of animal shelters. On most days I can point you to at least 10 stories about animal shelters waiving fees and going to extra lengths to incentivize residents to make a permanent home for a pet in order to keep them from being euthanized, the ugly alternative.

While there are usually two primary ways to deal with challenges like animal control, programming and larger facilities, it is always programming that should be given resources even though that means physical space, too. Spay and neuter efforts are foremost, of course. That goes without saying. And adoption endeavors need a robust and unrelenting dedication from staff and volunteers.

But the facilities need to be sufficient, and that is where I want to place an emphasis with my comments today. My main point is to not be surprised at this need. I rarely go to our animal shelter or any shelter. The reason is simple. Although my wife and I have four pets, I am positive a visit for any reason would result in us adding to our fur family. But the last time I visited the Collin County Animal Shelter, it was organized chaos. I’m sure the pet inventory was over-crowded, but I had to work my way through the people (some bringing pets, some taking one home) and volunteers to talk to the person I went to see.

Here is what I was left wondering, and I think about this every time I read yet another “Code Red” adoption story across the state in my daily readings. Why would we not realize that the companion story to the daily rah-rah about Texas’ hyper-growth in population has the same direct correlation to animal population management?

To know that any city’s population that has grown 5-20% in the last five years, and is likely to be on that same path for many more years – and to not have an animal shelter program and facility expansion in lockstep – is to have one’s head stuck in the sand.

There was a new story in the Amarillo news media this morning. A dog in labor was euthanized. I’m having difficulty even imagining how that could happen. But I do know  there are some basic management principles at play. There is an intake rate and an outflow rate. When the former grows at levels that some would have no problem describing as “massive,” then the inventory (facility) can only expand so far until the outflows have to increase: Pets have to be adopted, shipped to another facility (shifting the burden) or else the animal has to be euthanized put to death.

But those inventory and processing steps – called animal shelter programming and facility capacity – need to be sized commensurate with the population growth. Otherwise, city and county leaders can expect mistakes and regretful decisions from staff and volunteers. To turn one’s back to this problem is irresponsible.

C’mon folks, these animal shelters need some help – and kind-hearted adopters who already have too many pets cannot be the only solution. LFM

 

Is It Time to Reconsider the GFOA Awards & Transparency Awards?

INTRODUCTION

It was in the mid-1980s when I was called into the City Manager’s office at a medium-sized city in Missouri. I was there as part of a consulting team looking at the IT department and, in my case, the accounting software needs. I wasn’t sure why the City Manager asked to meet with me behind closed doors.

I quickly learned the purpose of the meeting was for the City Manager to vent about the Finance Director. I already knew they did not get along. Well, that’s an understatement. They despised each other. The City Manager came up through the public works channels. The Finance Director, I soon learned from those inside the City and even those in the wider government finance industry, was one of the most obnoxious individuals to ever walk Planet Earth.

The City Manager’s complaints about the FD were laced with fiery profanity. It didn’t take him long to direct the discussion to the GFOA Awards that the CM painted with his hand across an imaginary wall that was ostensibly the finance and accounting hallway. The CM ranted about how much time and money the FD spent on obtaining the awards that, to him, took time away from being productive. Specially, the CM complained about how he was getting no timely and meaningful reports out of the FD. I don’t actually recall my response to him, and I’m not sure he asked for my input. Like I said, he was just venting. Let this story simmer on the back burner for now.

TODAY

Fast forward about 3+ decades to just a few weeks ago. I was with a group of people that included CMO officials as well as some finance officials. Suddenly, the discussion landed on the GFOA Awards. In a slightly more gentle and professional way, representatives from both disciplines repeated almost verbatim the opinions of the Missouri CM. Without the profanity. One finance professional said he estimates that he dedicates about 2 FTEs to doing nothing but preparing the CAFR and Budget to submit for the GFOA Awards.

Worse, as the discussion unfolded, the time and money were spent to produce two documents that virtually nobody read. Not the Council, the City Manager or anybody else in the City. And even fewer citizens! Profanity almost entered the discussion when the participants started talking about the uselessness of most Performance Measures included in the Budget. One finance official had a PDF of his Budget on the laptop. He counted the pages of PM data and surprised every one in the room that it was about 30+% of the Budget document. And worthless – only done out of duty to satisfy the requirements to earn the GFOA Budget Award.

More than one person in the room said they could produce a much more valuable set of Finance Statements and a better Budget document without the worry of GFOA Awards. The extra time they gained could be used to work on true management reports. One city showed how they actually prepare yet another version of the Budget that is understandable with most of the pertinent information readers need to assess the City’s financial resources.

However, there was one problem revealed. A serious one. The City had so many consecutive years of awards on the walls that it was certain they would be fired if the loss of an award happened on their watch. That was a sobering thought and took a few minutes to soak in. Is that the real reason more people don’t speak up?

CONCLUSION

It dawned on me that the discussion I am describing, 100% true, is likely to be descriptive of what some City Officials may have been thinking for a long time. I’m even aware I might be ostracized for bringing it up. I must confess it has occurred to me many times in the past three decades – even as I was once a GFOA Reviewer for the Budget Award. So was at least one other person involved in this described discussion.

Separately, I was talking to one of my respected colleagues several months back about how I have grown to really appreciate and use some of the infrastructure and depreciation data included in the otherwise confusing CAFR. I was then shocked when told that he didn’t place much stock in the accuracy of that data and that it was only included to satisfy GASB requirements. I’m still dumbfounded.

I wonder sometimes if we haven’t continued to fall into the “Awards Trap.” Even the Transparency Awards, now the goal of many cities, appears to be adding some flashy stuff that can be more sizzle than steak. After playing around with a few sites, I think the jury is still out. Are you able to make decisions from information or is it simply interesting at best? The hope is that the answer is “both objectives are satisfied.” But I wonder.

A basic dilemma governments face is whether to just add on tasks to staff, especially overhead functions, or to Reallocate Resources. Adding is a computer function. Reallocating Resources is Management in its purest form, often not practiced at all. The companion question regarding information has always been this: “just exactly who would notice if we stopped doing this task or preparing this report?”

Wait, don’t shoot me with the “Rating Agencies Gospel Gun.” I know they are the only readers of the CAFR (along with a few of the larger Bond Holders), and the CAFR Award carries more weight than the Budget Award. But in your heart of hearts, is it time to reconsider the effort and costs of the “Award Trap” and time to Reallocate Resources to something people need, read and use? LFM

Should McKinney Refund $29,770,931 to Taxpayers from Excessive Taxation? You Make the Call!

McKinneyFB

Municipal budgets are a compilation of tons of numbers. The focus is usually on Revenues & Expenditures. However, not to be overlooked are the resulting Fund Balances, both the incremental addition or drawdown for any particular year as well as  the cumulative Balances.

Fund Balances should be clearly highlighted in a budget. They should also be viewed in light of the overall expenditures in each fund. There are several “funds” such as the General Fund, The McKinney Economic Development Fund, The McKinney Community Development Fund and the Water & Sewer Fund. The largest is the General Fund where most of the property taxes, sales taxes, franchise taxes and building permit revenues can be found. Also, the Police, Fire, Parks & Recreation Departments and most all typical city tax-supported services can be found in the General Fund.

The McKinney General Fund budget indicates a financial policy desired minimum Fund Balance of 90-days of Expenditures or about 25%. That’s pretty healthy. I also wouldn’t consider a 120-day balance or about 33% to be excessive but rather very healthy.

While the Budget documents are of value, I consider them secondary to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), which are the audited financial statements for a government entity. You will note from my table above that I have recapped some key number from the last 10 years of CAFRs for McKinney. These CAFRs are available at this link. The pages from the CAFRs I am using to compile my table can be found here.

To summarize my table and the CAFR schedules behind it, the City of McKinney has continually under-budgeted Revenues and over-budgeted Expenditures. Sure, there will be a variation out of a 10-year view, but the story is unmistakable.

The supporting schedules also show the changes between the Original Budget, the Revised Budget and the Actual Results. The Revised Budget figures are often shown late in the year about the time the Budget is presented to the City Council. That would be right about now as the City Council Budget Workshop is scheduled for tomorrow August 4th, when there are less then 60 days remaining in the Fiscal Year (October through September).

I would like to think that such a sophisticated staff as McKinney has, with all kinds of software and computing power to slice and dice the financial data, tailor queries and such, could stand flat-footed in August and get a very close estimate of the year-end actual numbers a few weeks away.

As you can see, the Actual results show the General Fund Balances to be well in excess of 120 days or 33% year after year for a decade. As of the end of September 30, 2016, the Fund Balance in the audited financial statements totals $65,606,029. When compared to Expenditures of $108,998,422, the metrics are 220 days or 60.19%.

If you compared to 120-days, the excess would be $29,770,931!

So, what could be done or should be done with that excessive amount? First, you would have to convince the City Manager that it is excessive, because he argues just the opposite. Actually, all you have to do is convince the City Council, the policy makers who adopted at the staff’s recommendation for a General Fund Balance level of 25% at a minimum.

Ah, nobody said anything about a maximum!

Would the City be in dire straits if the Property Tax Revenues had been $29 million less in recent years? Hardly. But you make the call. I want to see somebody stand up and tell me that $25-35 million at 120-days is too skinny.

Could the $29 million have been spent to buy 2-3 downtown garages out of cash and the City still be in sound financial condition? Yes. Or the same spent on a new city hall or on any kind of infrastructure needs? Yes.

Could or should the $29 million be returned to the Taxpayer since the rates could have much much lower in recent years and the City still be fiscal responsible? I think so, but you make the call. The $29 million excess got there because of unneeded taxation, pure and simple.

Has a refund like this ever been done before in the region? Yes, Farmers Branch did so many years back. They called it a dividend to the taxpayers.

Does the City have excessive reserves in other Funds? Yes, download the most recent CAFR and take a look. You will be blown away.

Did the City Council sitting in early 2017 when the FY 2016 CAFR was presented to them and accepted by the Council understand the General Fund had a $65 million balance? Dunno. Ask the three still on board or call up the four still active in the community. What about the current Council members? Dunno either. Ask them.

What is the staff projecting for the contribution to the General Fund Balance (or drawdown) going to be as of the end of the fiscal year in 60 days? I’m told a decrease of $381,105. And for FY 2018? I’m told it will be zero, that Revenues and Expenditures will be exactly the same.

We shall see.

Will Fund Balances even be discussed at tomorrow’s Budget Workshop?

Tune in.

LFM

 

 

Collin County Tax Base is Robust … And Will Put Pressure on Officials to Lower Tax Rates

We are blessed in Collin County. The momentum (momo) is enormous, and there are no signs of slowing down. In fact, it is just the opposite. Our momo is gaining momo!

The market value of my property went up 16.90%. Wow! My investment is paying off. My assessed value is lower due to my Homestead and Over 65 Exemption. Still, that’s quite a rise.

The pressure will be on for local government officials to lower the tax rate in most cases. But just how much? It depends. Each government will have to compute an apples-to-apples comparison in accordance with the State’s Truth-In-Tax laws before tax rates are considered beyond July 25, when the Certified Tax Roll is finalized. A key metric is the Effective Rate. The calculation can get complicated, but it basically boils down to this: what is the tax rate that equals last year’s Operations & Maintenance Tax Revenues + this year’s Debt Service obligations?

Oh, by the way, last year’s O&M Tax Rate can be adjusted to compensate for services needed to cover new growth in our community plus anything we annexed. That’s fair. You don’t add $billions in new subdivisions without needing more staff to patrol and serve same.

That basically leaves us with the Revaluations to scrutinized. I made an attempt to separate that critical number from an official document released yesterday by the Collin County Appraisal District that can be found at http://www.collincad.org/downloads/viewcategory/55-estimated-taxable-values.

Can the O&M Tax Rate be dropped by that Revaluation Percentage, which is 5.93% for McKinney and 5.11% for the County as a whole? Not exactly. There are two things not covered in the T-n-T calculation. One is inflation. Personnel costs and just about everything costs more due to inflation. So, there is a reasonable expectation that a portion of the increased tax valuations should cover property service cost increases due to inflation. Inflation means I am buying the same things for a higher price.

So, what should that inflation factor be? The official number is about 2.00%. My expectation is that local government inflation is more due to a fairly large amount of commodity costs, such as fuel, electricity, road materials and more. Let’s use 2.50%, just for illustration purposes.

That would leave about 3.43% in the O&M Component of the Tax Rate for McKinney. Should we expect that level of tax reduction?

Well, maybe, but there is one more thing, and it is not tiny. There are new things needed and approved all the time. Cameras and better police vests are examples. Not cheap. The list is long, and many if not most are new services and service level increases requested by the citizens and taxpayers themselves.

So we should just suck it up and expect all of the 3.43% to be absorbed by local governments? Not at all. In fact, we are isolating just this one component of budget balancing to better understand it. Below the CCAD table, you can find my diagram of all of the other ways local governments have to balance a budget BEFORE they get to raising the taxes or utility rates.

I started calling this approach Skinny Budgeting way before President Trump started using the term. And virtually every avenue for budget balancing has been part of my sermonettes since the early 1970s. The elements of this approach are exhaustive as you drill down within each selection. When I prioritize these approaches, the very last one is to defer necessary expenditures like infrastructure maintenance. The next to the last one is to raise taxes. The very first one is performance improvement, which should be an everyday exercise and not one saved to balance a budget in case of a crunch.

More on Skinny Budget in a later blog. My point for bringing it up as part of this blog is to keep from getting slammed from John & Jill Obvious that tax revenues aren’t the only balancing solution that should be examined.

Also, and this is very important, these CCAD values are preliminary, before they go through the appeal process – a primary obligation of the property owners. LFM

2017EstimateTaxableValues

 

IMG_1701 (002)

McKinney Police & Fire Unions Have No Business Being Involved in Political Influence Peddling

Introduction.

There is nobody in Texas more supportive of police and fire than I am. For over 44 years I have been involved in lifting them up, praising them across the state and letting them know how important they are to us. My wife and I never miss an opportunity to thank them for protecting us. Our biggest joy is when we offer to buy lunch for a table full of first responders at a restaurant. Our prayers frequently include a specific mention for public safety workers to be protected from harm.

But I have also been the budget director or financial planner to many cities and a couple of counties in Texas. I appreciate all local government workers. My wish is for us to be able to do everything we can to support everyone. While I think of those risking their lives, the municipal family is much broader to me. There is nobody I respect more than the water department workers who are called out at 2 am in the freezing rain to dig a hole to climb down in so they can fix a busted water line in order to service to be restored before I wake up.

Violation of Council-Manager Form of Government.

For the City Council (or candidate) to reach out for direct support and sponsorship by the Police and Fire Unions (or any city government employee group) is just flat wrong. In essence, it is saying my boss is the Chief, and his/her boss is the City Manager and his/her boss is the City Council and their bosses are the Citizens. So, to hell with the legal structure the Citizens adopted in the Charter. Let’s gang up and try to influence the last two echelons of the City’s intentionally selected form of proper governance.

It’s the most basic form political manipulation in McKinney. The common phrase is “count to four.” That means if you can get four votes, you can do or get just about anything you want in McKinney. That is why developers and real estate people are such prominent financial contributors in local races. But the most dastardly maneuvers by that particular group pale in comparison to an employee group trying to pick their boss’s boss two or three levels up.

McKinney Citizens Are Being Duped.

Here is where the Fire & Police Unions laugh all the way to the voting booth. Citizens are under the impression that there is a massive amount of support for a candidate. However, do this math:

  • How many people are in these two departments?
  • How many of the employees of these two departments belong to the Union?
  • How many of those employees actually live in McKinney and are eligible to vote?
  • How many of those voting are doing their own thinking or just following the Union leadership?

Wouldn’t it be funny if having the Police & Fire Union blatant support isn’t really generating that much political favor if the rank and file, not to mention the other city employees, quietly vote the opposite? I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m guessing there are a small handful of actual employees making it appear has if the entire forces are championing a candidate. Politically brilliant, I suppose, but a charade.

Conclusion.

Citizens, be suspicious of this aspect of McKinney’s Underground Government. It’s real, and the only way it is ever going to change is by new blood. 1-2-3-4.

I will continue to be a cheerleader for all employees in local government. But I will always see a red flag when an employee Union is deliberately trying to manipulate an election! LFM.

Is McKinney Sandbagging Revenue Estimates?

McKinney is asking for citizen input for the upcoming budget at tonight’s meeting. Since most citizen comments are limited to only three minutes, I am opting to blog my observations on sales tax revenue assumptions.

I monitor sales tax revenues for every city, county, transit authority and special district in Texas every month. That would be over 1,600 local governments. Due to the beating levied on the oil patch regions in Texas, the total collections have been relative flat for about 18 months. But the total $8 billion annual local government base has been stable and is now growing again.

However, while many regions have suffered, that is not the case for others such as in North Texas. The collections have been robust in the DFW area. Let’s look at McKinney in particular. On a Rolling 12-month (R12) basis, there has been constant growth at an impressive rate since the Great Recession. As of April 2017, the City has collected $48,852,787 in the last 12 months, the highest ever. Just about every month is another record breaker.

The annualized growth rate is 11.34%! The R12% is the most telling and sensitive indicator of growth. It will announce slowing, peaking, bottoming and recovering points way before you can grasp the changes in dollars. The R12% is an incredibly robust metric for McKinney. Double-digit growth is difficult to sustain. But half that amount isn’t.

April 2017’s check was $216,062 higher than April 2016 or 6.57% more.

By the way, you can see the anomalies such as the positive $5 million + Audit Adjustment McKinney received back in 2011. The R12 spiked for exactly 12 months and then returned to its strong growth trend.

But let’s shift our attention to the Sales Tax Per Capita calculation. On a statewide level, Texas local governments are receiving $161.86 per capita on a 1-cent basis. McKinney is collecting $139.32 on that same basis. That can be translated into $3,951,225 below average or twice that amount since McKinney collects the full 2-cents allowed for local governments. But we knew that even before the City spent money to have a “leakage” study done in recent years.

McKinneySalesTaxChart

But let’s put $139.32 per capita into perspective. I prepared the chart below a few months ago and have not updated it. However, the value remains. It is instructive to look at McKinney’s Sales Tax Per Capita when you can see several years of history and adjust the calculations for inflation (CPI).

You can see the fluctuations that come from a mix of population growth and economic peaks and valleys.  You can see clearly where McKinney has been in recent years. This metric was $133.26 at the end of the fiscal year 2016. I had projected that it would rise to at least $137.81 at the end of the current fiscal year and then up to $139.61 at the end of FY 2018, the budget year for which input is being requested. I was intentionally slightly conservative. I used an inflation rate of 1.75% when it is likely to be above 2.00%.

This estimate translates into the following, again, on a 1-cent basis:

  • FY 2016 $23,594,961 Actual without any audit adjustments.
  • FY 2017 $24,917,139 or 5.60% higher than FY 2016.
  • FY 2018 $26,367,347 or 5.81% higher than FY 2017.

So, there’s my input.

PerCapita

In looking at the agenda packet for tonight, I find a presentation that indicates a sales tax growth rate of 2.06%! It does not say whether the growth rate is going to be applied to the 2017 Budget, the 2017 Revised Budget or any other base. That’s important. It appears to be scientific in that it is the composite of the Fed Median GDP Projection; the 10-Year Dallas Fed PCE; the 10-Year Rolling Average; and the Low 5-Year Average.

Hold on a second. I’m not sure any those are logical linkages. Here is what I do know. I have prepared some very sophisticated sales tax modeling algorithms in my career. And no matter the degree of complexity or academic statistical excellence I worked into the model, my last step had to include dividing the numerator by the denominator (residential population and employment) to come up with a Sales Tax Per Capita value.

Questions Abound

On the surface, the concept of making conservative estimates sounds noble and smart. But here is the problem. Actually, there are several problems. If you are too conservative (lowering revenue estimates and raising expenditure assumptions), then what is there to manage?

One can brag about how the spending came in under budget. Big deal. Not to hard to do with enough padding.

One might even brag about how money has been “found” mid-year to come in and save the day for new need, especially a political need. In my career, I have seen how eventually nobody needs to fight for resources during the budget. Just know that the real budget “tightening” will come when the budget is revised mid-year in face of the true income and spending levels. Except “tightening” can turn into new-found money (oh how I hate that phrase).

The net result of being overly conservative, other than the kudos for rescue funding mid-year, is that reserves get boosted. But then that argument gets abused. If you have 60 days of operating reserves, wouldn’t 90 be better? Well, if big is better, then why not build reserves up to 180 days. Where do you stop?

Next, comes the most insincere and most abused argument of them all: “the bond rating agencies want big reserves or else they will drop the bond rating.”

Rage sets in on me. I’ve watched the McKinney finance staff shut down a legitimate question asked by a councilmember by simply invoking the “Bond Rating Agency Threat.” Grounds for dismissal in my book. Especially the Deputy City Manager who directs the financial staff. He knows the game, and recent abuses have been on his watch.

But here’s the deal. The bond rating agencies place a high degree of emphasis on fiscal management, including controls and planning. They will even hang with you if you are in trouble. They mainly want to know a couple of things: 1) do you know you are in trouble; and 2) do you know how to get out of trouble?

Want to know how the bond rating agencies will react to something? Go ask them! They are approachable. Plus you pay them a big fee to be rated.

Here’s something else I know. McKinney is flush with reserves after years of overly conservative budgeting. I won’t be handing out a badge of honor for big reserves when there are legitimate needs for spending – or to cut the tax rate.

And I know this. Overly conservative sales tax budgeting boosts the need for property tax revenues. It works like this. A penny on the tax rate produces about $1,700,000. A one percent change in the sales tax revenue equals about $260,000. Low ball the sales tax revenue by 4% and you need the property tax rate equivalent of $1,400,000 or a TRE of about 6/10 of a penny. ($260,000 x 4) / $1,700,000.

So, do this at the McKinney meeting tonight: ask for the Budget vs Actual for Sales Tax Revenues for the past five years. Ask what the revised FY 2017 sales tax revenue estimate is expected to be now that nearly half the year has gone by. LFM

BTW, if you want to see the first chart for every entity in Texas, you can download my charts I prepare monthly. It’s a big PDF file.

You can view “StatewideCharts201704.pdf” at: https://files.acrobat.com/a/preview/8bd7f399-4e3a-48e0-a717-50b9b92e7125