Betsy Hodges will be looking at Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s new budget the way your high school math teacher reviewed your homework.
“I’m looking for what I always look for, which is structural balance,” said the council member who chairs the Ways and Means/Budget Committee.
Most council members aren’t looking for structural balance, focusing instead department by department to see who got what and who got shortchanged.
Hodges starts by making sure that ongoing items are paid for with ongoing dollars and one-time items are paid with one-time dollars. She and other committee members are examining those issues while other council members look at how their top priority items got treated by the mayor.
“I’m looking at the number of vacant positions that each department is trying to roll over into the next year,” said Council Member Gary Schiff, a budget committee member. He is also looking at departments’ business plans to see if they are adequately funded.
Budget committee members are the ones who read the budget line by line, listen to department heads explain budget ramifications and ask the kind of budget questions that only a CPA would find interesting.
“The expectation of other council members is that we are really looking at the detail and getting under the skin,” said Council Member Diane Hofstede, a committee member who might hold the record for asking questions. “We’re digging deeper.”
Schiff has not ruled out the possibility of grinding down the mayor’s proposed property tax increase of 1.7 percent, which he calls “reasonable.” When he receives the budget, he will be looking for places to cut.
“I’m looking for new spending … new programs, new spending, making sure they are absolutely necessary,” Schiff said.
“I’m looking, in particular this year, at the five-year financial direction,” said Hodges, who knows from experience that it might be easier to begin now to fix a problem lurking three years out rather than waiting.
She already is looking at 2014, when the Neighborhood and Community Relations Program, which funds neighborhood organizations, will change funding sources, a situation that could increase property taxes.
“There is a bump in 2014. The experience people will have will be significant,” said Hodges, “so we want to prepare them in 2013.”
What Hodges refers to as a “bump” others might call a tax increase. There was a “bump” in property taxes suggested last year by the mayor, but the committee thought otherwise — and the bump disappeared. Hodges does not think that will happen this time around.
“I’m going to look specifically into different departments and what they might need, into the capital budget, and there are some things in my ward I’m interested in,” she said.
The committee will meet for about 10 hours a week to work on the budget, not counting outside “homework” before and after sessions.
“It’s going to be a fun fall,” quipped Hodges. “Don’t get me wrong — I will be down in the weeds on this thing, but I want to do that within the context of responsible budget practices and principles.”