Wolf gets down to budgeting business -- sort of

Published by Mike Pound on .

As Vallejo mulls changes to its participatory budgeting experiment, three City Council members this week said they would support lowering the voting age from 16 to 14.

Council members Pippin Dew-Costa, Rozzana Verder-Aliga and Katy Miessner said the voting age should be lowered to invite more high school students into the process of letting residents decide how to spend part of the city budget.

Mayor Osby Davis, however, said he would oppose the move because he believes many younger teens would not be mature enough to vote on taxpayer-funded projects.

#x201c;There#x2019;s a big difference between 16 and 14,#x201d; Davis said.

The issue was one of several discussed Tuesday in a study session on proposed revisions to the participatory budgeting process. Vallejo remains the only city in the country to have implemented the process on a citywide scale.

No final decisions were made Tuesday. The council is expected to take action on the proposed rule changes on Jan. 13.

According to the city, nearly one-third of the 3,744 people who voted in the last cycle were high school students. Many of them were allowed and encouraged to vote on campus, leading to concerns that youth were given greater voting power over taxpayer money than other segments of the community.

A city analysis, however, determined that the winning projects still would have won even if votes cast at the high schools weren#x2019;t counted.

In addition to the voting age, the council struggled with whether to restrict project proposals to capital improvements by public agencies. In the past, nonprofit groups have been allowed to complete for funding, but some groups have had trouble getting projects off the ground once they were approved. Other projects had to be delayed and modified to avoid potential legal challenges related to the use of public funds.


While President Obama is calling for a new $263 million community policing plan including funding for 50,000 police body cameras, the idea of outfitting officers with body cams is nothing new at the Chattanooga Police Department.

Its not until a perceived crisis erupts in a community that folks outside the industry tend to take an interest in it. Weve been looking at this for many years, said Chattanooga Police Chief Fred fletcher.

Fletcher said CPD tested body cameras a couple years ago, and are going through a second round of testing right now due to new technology.

READ MORE | How police body cameras work

But budgeting for these cameras is complicated, he said. Although technology is available, funding is often an issue.

Its also an unknown cost because its an entirely new world, Fletcher said.

If you Google search the cost of a body camera, you can find some for around $150. But there are plenty of peripheral costs involved.

When you acquire data, data equals storage. Storage equals costs. And it also requires human resources and maintenance of that, said Fletcher.

Hes working with other law enforcement officers across the state to come up with a comprehensive policy that abides state laws and makes sense.

While some departments in Tennessee already use the technology, Fletcher pointed out theyre typically smaller departments with a lower call volume.

CPD responds to an average of 600 calls per day. With officers working eight-hour shifts, 365 days a year, it would require an enormous amount of storage.

But Fletcher said the cameras wont replace what builds trust in the first place.

Technology will never be a replacement for a handshake. Technology will never be a replacement for a hug. Technology will never be a replacement for an officer on a front porch in a time of need, he said.

Its the relationships that build trust. Its the people that build trust. Video simply documents those activities.

FBI statistics show there are 630,000 officers employed across the country. Obamas plan will help fund 50,000 body cameras. So the overall effect of helping fund the technology for 12-percent of the nations law enforcement is still unclear.

But most of the towns are vastly underbudgeting the real estate transfer tax revenue, which leaves no opportunity for relief on property taxes.

According to a Daily Herald analysis of 19 suburbs that charge a real estate transfer tax, 17 took in a combined $5.6 million more than budgeted during the most recent fiscal year.

The tax usually amounts to about $900 on the sale of a $300,000 house and often is paid by the seller.

Local officials say theyre budgeting conservatively after the housing bust of the Great Recession.

Critics say the towns are holding on to money they should rebate to residents.

The reason for underbudgeting is so they dont have to provide property tax relief, said Jim Tobin, founder of Taxpayers United of America, a Chicago-based group that fights tax-hike measures throughout the country.

In Naperville, the tax was expected to generate $2.9 million last fiscal year. Instead, it generated more than $4.5 million, a 54 percent increase above the budget target.

Thats a big miss, said Bill Bergman, director of research for Truth in Accounting, a group pushing for more uniform, understandable and accessible government financial reporting requirements. But we tend to see underestimated expenses and overestimated revenues.

This year, Naperville officials budgeted revenues from the real estate tax at more than $3.8 million, but finance officials are already adjusting their expectations.

We are now projecting it to come in at around $4.2 million, which is still down from last year, said City Manager Doug Krieger, adding that property tax levies take time to adjust.

We monitor this, and if revenues are exceeding expenditures, the relief goes to property tax. But once you levy, youre always stuck with the levy.

Along with the state and all counties, home-rule communities are allowed to levy a real estate transfer tax. The majority of suburbs charge at a rate of $3 per $1,000 of the purchase price.

Home-rule suburbs used to be able to enact the tax at will, but it became so controversial that in 1997 legislators revoked the power.

Now, home-rule communities have to seek voter approval to levy the tax. And suburbs already levying the tax also have to seek voter approval to increase the tax rate, according to state law.

Its just another super taxpayer ripoff, Tobin said. The best way to get rid of the abuse is to get rid of home rule.

That would also eliminate a municipalitys ability to raise property taxes to cover the lost revenue because tax cap laws would be reinstated, he said.

The uncertainty of the tax revenue -- particularly since the collapse of the real estate market in 2008 -- has made some finance officials overly cautious when it comes to budgeting, many said.

I think thats a fair assessment, Krieger said. But the health of that revenue stream is tied to two things: the average value of the transaction and the number of transactions. Which, especially in recent years, has made the transfer tax revenue very volatile.

While many towns simply funnel the tax revenue into the municipalitys general fund, some designate the dollars for capital improvement projects.

Because we use it to fund streets and sidewalks, if we get a little more money, we fix a little more sidewalks, said Christina Coyle, Glen Ellyns finance director.

Glen Ellyn received $106,703 more than what was budgeted last year, which translates to 19 percent more than anticipated.

Still, Coyle is budgeting transfer tax revenues to come in about $31,000 less than the $656,703 the village received at the end of the last fiscal year.

What weve budgeted is pretty consistent with what weve received, she said. I wish I had a crystal ball.

Two suburbs, Addison and Hanover Park, took in less real estate transfer tax revenue than what had been budgeted.

Greg Peters, interim finance director at Hanover Park, said the unknowns of the real estate market make forecasting transfer tax revenues harder than other revenue sources. And it might not be as big a priority to get it right as with other funds.

Every finance director will do (the forecasting) differently, and some will spend more time on it than others, he said.

As a rule, you want to be relatively conservative on revenues and assume the worst on expenditures and you almost always come out good.

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