Glover's Budget Strategy

Mayor Cohen has generously announced that his 2004 budget is our City's last deficit budget, thanks to revenue from new chain stores. But Cohen's Southwest plan gambled our solvency on desperate competition with neighboring cities. His administration's unprecedented deficit spending to prepare Southwest big box development is a bad investment that will never be repaid. Not only do chainstores burden localities with indirect costs greater than the sales and property taxes they pay, but Home Depot's developer sued the City when asked to share costs.

Thus we're now bonded to millions of dollars extra debt (14% of 2004 budget), prominently for road expansions which will do nothing but accommodate bigger traffic jams; and for sewer and water expansions which will raise those rates for all (dGEIS v.1: 2.9.3). Therefore, to prevent or limit further service cuts and tax increases, future budgets must feature innovative programs which plug leaks in the local economy, while exploring new sources of revenue.

Mere competent management of our sinking ship will not serve. We'll either become a pioneering city, or we'll decay amid others upstate. The millions wasted during the Cohen years could have been invested in local talent rather than distant boardrooms.

What will Green budgets look like? During my first four years as mayor you'll see the beginnings of orderly transitions to greater regional reliance. City Hall will become more entrepreneurial, more agile, more enthusiastic about new ideas. Finances will gradually move toward efficient systems, as the load is lifted from old systems. For example, for every 10,000 fewer cars on a feeder street, road repair costs are released for economic development.

Here are some transfers I'd propose, subject to approval by boards, commissions, Council, public hearings, unions, and in some cases, state enabling legislation.

Generally, we'll shift jobs and budget toward local control and production of basic goods (food, fuel, housewares, low-cost housing, medical/dental access), while reducing our dependence on import. Money retained locally creates yet more patronage for local businesses, and more jobs. Simplest and most powerful would be an import replacement database, maintained by the Planning Department in prominent public places such as TCPL. This service networks local businesses and individuals with those needing products and labor. For example, when Cornell solicits bids for replacement drapery, local talent could combine to fill orders.

Our City's nearly 500 employees help stabilize our community and its economy, yet ever-higher taxes to pay them burden other workers. We need to connect the destiny of City workers to the destiny of the workers of the city: City staff salary increases should be indexed to communitywide average wage increases. Thus I favor nonprofitization (not privatization), paying livable wages to unionized nonprofit groups to perform certain City work.

The largest part of recent budget increases feeds employee health insurance. Purchasing higher-deductible coverage, then filling the gap by self-insuring through the Ithaca Health Alliance, will lower these costs. All Ithacans should be invited into this pool.

Two-thirds of the City's budget is a direct or indirect subsidy to automobile use. Every shift to alternate mobility reduces the expenses of road repair and traffic control, public health expenses, and the bureaucracies behind these. Therefore, dedicating initially just 2% of DPW budget to bicycle access is a good investment. Likewise, TCAT should buy smaller buses, using money saved to run more frequently on more routes, and hire more drivers. Revival of fixed rail trollies (privately-funded turnkey) will provide more than transportation, will stimulate eco-tourism, and inspire greater use of transit generally.

The City should finance popular projects partly with donated Ithaca HOURS, which would be negotiable citywide after City Hall welcomes HOURS for part of tax payment. As local connections grow, reliance on local currency can expand, decreasing debt.

The City will also save money by refraining from hiring outside consultants. We have enough talent among City residents to start another Cornell. To enable citizens to suggest efficient processes and purchases, the budget needs to be displayed on the web as HTML rather than PDF, linking line items to descriptions of relevant equipment, project plans, contractors and bids. We need budgets which include, as well, clear diagrams of service volume provided per employee, comparisons of Ithaca's staff loads with cities of comparable size, etc.

Efficiencies achieved by the above will enable us to meet needs of lower-income Ithacans (more of us every day). City Hall can help decrease living costs by facilitating establishment of: 1) re-use warehouse which provides high quality used goods nearly free, 2) food processing center to create jobs and added value for regional agriculture, 3) dental clinic like those found in hundreds of communities nationwide, 4) insulation co-op to reduce the loss of money to NYSEG, 5) fuel buying club like Co-op Plus, 6) limited-equity co-housing land trusts to reduce costs. Such programs decrease pressure for higher wages.

To raise funds I'll also propose a progressive local income tax, penny per gallon gasoline tax, Whole Ithaca Stock Exchange (eco-venture capital).

Some of these intentions are novel. But forces beyond Ithaca are forcing change. We will either control this change, to enjoy Ithaca and prosper, or we'll fall farther behind. Nothing less is liberal, nothing less conserves.

Glover is a community economist who is prime founder of Ithaca HOURS, Ithaca Health Fund, Citizen Planners of Los Angeles and Whole Ithaca Stock Exchange (WISE).