Contra Costa Times: Richmond leaders continue ignoring financial reality

blogimage.jpgBefore passing the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Richmond leaders should ask themselves how long the city can continue like this.

The proposed plan for the 12 months starting July 1 calls for again using one-time funds to equalize income and expenditures and for postponing minimum debt payments. While an improvement over the current year's budget, this is not the structurally balanced plan City Manager Bill Lindsay had promised following last month's substantial downgrade of Richmond's bond rating.

The city, which nearly went bankrupt a decade ago, continues living beyond its means without looking down the road at long-term consequences.

We're told a five-year financial forecast will be produced. We're baffled why that didn't precede the budget discussion. How can council members approve a budget if they don't know the long-term consequences?

Everyone understands that Richmond faces significant financial and socio-economic challenges. But that's not an excuse for irresponsible financial planning.

Well-run cities anticipate future shortfalls and plan ways to head them off. They recognize their current debts and establish repayment schedules. Instead, Richmond continues to live from year to year, from crisis to crisis.

It's time for city leaders to confront reality. Don't tell residents the budget is balanced when it relies on money from a bond-refinancing deal that produced one-time income and will require maintaining larger payments in the future.

Don't ignore pension payments expected to rise 35 percent to 40 percent over the next five years. Don't bury the city's failure to make minimum contributions to reduce the debt for workers' retiree health care program.

The city levies a special property tax to help pay for city employees' pensions. For every $100,000 of assessed value, the charge adds an additional $140 annually to tax bills. Nevertheless, the city's pension and retiree health care funds are laden with $446 million of debt.

Acknowledge that use of new voter-approved sales tax money for ongoing spending will extinguish the hope of some that the money might help repair the city's deteriorating roads. Recognize that the condition of city streets represents yet another mounting unfunded liability that must be confronted.

There are potential bright spots on the horizon. The Chevron refinery modernization projection should boost property tax revenues, as should some planned development projects. And the city's residential property tax assessments should begin recovering from the recession. But it's unclear when those revenues will arrive and how much they will offset much faster rising costs.

It's time for some realistic forecasting and planning. That should have happened before the council considered the budget.

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