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Editorial: Even in a year that's flush, Longview must watch budget

For years, the Longview City Council has held the line on spending. It has not been easy.

Some necessary individual budget line items have increased each year as they always do, out of the council’s ability to control. System upgrades are needed, repairs must be done, hiring must continue.

Holding the line, then, actually meant some fairly serious cutting back, especially when pay raises were included. It was an exercise in belt-tightening, and the city staff usually has done well.

A better Longview economy and higher property values for the upcoming budget year changes all that. A city budget proposal released at the end of July has spending increasing by $3.3 million, largely a testament to the fact previous unmet needs are being provided.

Taxes are also rising, but that was decided by a vote of the taxpayers who approved selling bonds to make capital improvements across the city. Voters were plainly told at the time that approving the bond sale would increase taxes by about 5 cents per $100 valuation.

The actual increase will be 4.9 cents, so the city has kept its word. Before taxpayers get angry about the tax increase, they should remember it was their choice.

The increased spending in the general fund will be paid for strictly through taxes on increased property values and sales tax rebates to the city, which were up considerably in 2019 for the first time in years.

One-time capital projects largely involve public safety, with an $843,000 fire engine in the budget and replacing numerous vehicles in the city’s fleet. Other capital expenses include $376,000 for parks, $250,000 for a traffic signal on Hawkins Parkway, and so forth.

Salaries will be another big item, with sizable increases being proposed. They are based on a study of salaries paid by 17 cities and aim to bring every employee to within 95 percent of that average.

Overall, that has led to an 11 percent across across the city payroll increase, and some employees are proposed to get an eye-popping 25% bump and some even more.

Beyond the idea of such hefty pay raises being done in one budget cycle, we cannot quibble with most of these expenditures on the surface, though we are still delving into the fine print. Still, it is a bit shocking to see the jump in spending after such frugality for all those previous years and should bring up questions among taxpayers. It certainly has with us.

A proposed budget is just that, a proposal. It is a place to start, though it ought to be a solid foundation on which to begin. In the process of approving the plan, we would expect individual council members to sharply question the expenditures, and we hope they do it soon, and in public.

Doing this — and getting good answers — will actually make taxpayers more confident their city is going down the right path. The city might also find that some expenditures really aren’t necessary at this time.

All the money does not have to be spent, and the tax rate can be reduced if all the money isn’t needed. We know city councils typically don’t like to do that to hedge against a tax increase later on, but this year, it would be the right thing to do.

We urge taxpayers to keep a close eye on the budgeting process and speak up if they see unneeded spending — or if they see places money needs to be spent. We will delve more deeply into the numbers soon, as well.

Just because we are in a year that should be flush with tax money does not mean it has to be spent, or that the same tax rate has to be assessed.

Beyond significant questions about wages, we aren’t complaining that the city is being wasteful or acting as a spendthrift. But council members now must do their jobs and guard against that happening, and taxpayers must make sure they do so.

Today's Bible verse

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

Romans 1:17

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