The 2017 budget season is opening with county supervisors and school district leaders facing the smallest projected funding gap in years. That’s good news for them and good news for county taxpayers.
From this starting point, two good things can happen.
First, although least likely, is that the work done by the School Board and the Board of Supervisors over next three months will yield significant cost-cutting and deliver a measurable tax break to county property owners. Don’t count on your tax bill going down next year.
Or county and school leaders can step back from the protracted battles that characterize their budget work when revenue and spending projections translate to fears of debilitating shortfalls. The focus this year should be on addressing challenges they share in a more collaborative and coordinated manner. The effort to improve mental health services—already a plank in Superintendent Williams’ proposal—is one example.
It also is time to thoughtfully assess the service cuts that were made on both sides of the budget after the nation teetered on the edge of a fiscal cliff eight years ago. Over the years it was easier to put the squeeze on bus drivers than teachers, but, as we see today, those types of decisions—made all across the spectrum—have costs in the long run. A careful look for unintended consequences of belt tightening in the county’s public safety agencies has merit, for example. There are less obvious areas of concern, such as whether noncompetitive pay is fueling high vacancy rates in some sectors.
This certainly isn’t the time to reopen the spigot to refill the government trough, but this budget season provides the opportunity to change the tone of the exercise. Instead of looking for cuts that may provide the least harm (or threaten the least number of votes come election time), this is a year when county leaders can begin making targeted investments that can pay even bigger community dividends.