City must justify climate plan expenses

Aug 1, 2016 | Uncategorized

In my last column (July 3), I wrote about the risks of Fort Collins’ city leaders developing a two-year budget that undermines support for future tax measures.

I specifically mentioned the Keep Fort Collins Great sales tax that will expire in a few years and how adding big costs into the budget now for things like climate programs could make it hard later to convince voters that the city actually needs more revenue.

Before getting to my main points, let me clarify a couple of things. This column is not about climate change. I don’t have the scientific qualifications to weigh in either way on such an important issue.

Nor is it about the efficacy of the city’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), because there actually is no Climate Action Plan. The City Council adopted a climate framework but never put a plan in place. In a sense, an ad hoc climate plan is being proposed through the budgeting process.

So this column is about questions of costs, benefits and the impacts of CAP proposals coming forward, who will pay those costs and what basic services might be impacted.

A quick review of the city’s online budgeting documents shows 97 CAP-related budget requests totaling an eye-catching $363 million over two years.

To put that number in perspective, in 2015 voters renewed two 10-year sales taxes for public facilities and street maintenance that combined will generate around $170 million over an entire decade.

Let me stress several points. First, budget requests are not approved budget expenditures. Those 97 requests still have to pass muster with department heads, the city manager and the council. Second, not all of this is new money. Many of these requests are existing expenditures with a CAP tag.

Additionally, some of the requests might save city government and residents money. But the claim that spending millions will save money needs serious explaining and needs to be backed up with defensible numbers.

In evaluating the 97 CAP budget proposals, as I did previously, here are common-sense questions budget-setters should ask:

What will these proposals accomplish, how will results be measured and how much will they cost?

Who will pay for these recommendations and in what form? Fees? General fund? Special taxes? Shifting costs onto homeowners and businesses through new regulations? Eliminating existing programs?

What will happen to utility rates?

How will these programs affect housing affordability and traffic?

Will these programs make it easier or harder to retain primary companies and for them to expand here?

How will CAP initiatives impact other city programs that are competing for the same budget dollars?

What are the specific cost savings projected as a result of CAP implementation? Are there documented examples of comparable savings from communities similar to Fort Collins?

The city manager and City Council have the tough job of balancing overall community needs, and they do a good job of it. The trick here is how to embrace aspirational proposals without squeezing basic services out of the city’s budget, burdening businesses and residents with significant new costs and regulations, and undermining the city’s case that they need more money in the future.

Originally published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan 8/1/2016 here.