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    Commentary: What Albany needs, a second visioning process!

    Albany resident Mac McCurdy¬†commented on the city’s budget transparency and financial viability in the article below:

    Those who follow Albany issues are well aware of the $600,000 waterfront “visioning” exercise which is currently underway. But there is another visioning process that is far more critical to the future of Albany.¬† Take a little quiz:

    What does the city currently spend in a year to “run” Albany? Where does our money come from? How is this money spent?

    Are expenditures rising faster than revenues? What future cost increases (salaries, pensions, etc.) are already built-in? Do you know what the city is paying to service debt (bond issues) already on the books? We are told the budget is “balanced”. Do you know what, if any, needed infrastructure projects (e.g. filling potholes, sewer repairs, etc.) were postponed or dropped in order to achieve this? Have you searched out the budget on the city website? If so, could you make heads or tails (or anything in between) of it?

    Relax. This is a self-graded quiz, and no one needs to know how much you, or the rest of us, understand about Albany finances. The city certainly doesn’t make it easy for you, as anyone who searches the city’s website will discover. And while a look at the latest City of Albany Fall and Winter newsletters will tell you how to recycle food scraps and the best way to handle fallen leaves, they don’t contain a peep about Albany’s current financial condition and future prospects. We learn about the many plans and activities in place to assure that Albany is “sustainable” from the standpoint of contributing to a greener world, but we see no discussion, plan, or vision as to how Albany is going to financially sustain itself as a livable and viable city for the long haul.

    There is some urgency here, since it appears that Albany will be looking at general revenue deficits in the near future, possibly as soon as 2009. And from what we can see, here is what the city is banking on for additional revenues:

    –Increased taxes in the form of fees. A property transfer tax increase is on the ballot. But even if passed, revenues maybe down due to the slow housing market.

    –Parking meters. Since this is not a popular one, the city has been a bit stealthy about developing a proposal. Depending on election results, this proposal could surface soon after November 4.

    –Windfalls. Recently U.C. and Safeway have come forward with proposals to Albany that would be helpful in generating some economic revenue. But rather than recognizing such proposals as good fortune with a few wrinkles to work out, the city’s first reaction often tends toward a negative concern that green and other interests of the city could be trampled on.

    –And, of course that old standby, property tax increases for home owners. No need to be concerned with economic justice here, or the fact that the buyer of a $500,000 house in Albany currently takes on roughly one grand a month in taxes. These folks are always good for a little more, it seems.

    We would include “economic development” in the mix, but as of now the city’s efforts have been so feeble that realistically, little progress can be expected here under the present council. In the last two years, not a single significant business has been attracted to Albany. Hiring part time consultants does not revenue generate.

    If the shotgun approach outlined above doesn’t quite get it for you, maybe it’s time for an organized and serious effort to plan for Albany’s continuing financial health in the years to come. What might such a project look like? Here’s a cut:

    Education: That is, develop clear answers and explanations in respect to the questions in your quiz above. Several knowledgeable volunteers picked from our deep bench of Albany professional people could work with the city’s capable financial analyst to put a picture together for us that we could actually understand.

    Periodic Reporting: Publicly held companies issue quarterly and annual reports to keep shareholders abreast of their financial condition. Why can’t Albany? Currently, the budget is published in an arcane format which is “mandated” by the State of California for the benefit of bureaucrats in Sacramento. We need to create and publish an “Albany friendly” version on a regular basis so that taxpayers can keep up with what is going on.

    Visioning: A “vision” is described in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “something seen in a dream, trance, or ecstasy”. While this maybe an apt description of what goes on in the waterfront arena, for Albany’s financial future we need something a bit more concrete, based on sound financial projections, an assessment of future problems and opportunities, and possibly a look at some hard choices. All this in order to avoid a dive into the pool of red ink where many (most?) of our neighboring cities are currently swimming, or perhaps drowning.

    What would all this cost? With the right people working as a volunteer Financial Planning Committee for Albany, maybe not much at all. Let’s hope the new city council puts something like this together.

    Click to read another commentary by the same author: A City Council of One

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