In the past few weeks, the joint efforts of the city manager, mayor and council members have brought down proposed firefighter layoffs from 80 to zero and proposed police layoffs from 189 to 25. While the good news is appreciated, it reveals city officials were, at best, disastrously wrong or, at worst, lying when they suggested the city had to lease its parking assets to avoid massive layoffs.
Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. — two of the city leaders behind the budget proposals — spent the past six months warning that if the city’s parking assets weren’t leased to help balance the budget, big public safety layoffs would be required. When questioned, Dohoney and Mallory repeatedly insisted they weren’t “bluffing.”
But look at the facts: The parking plan is now being held up in court, which means the city can’t use the plan to help balance the fiscal year 2014 budget, which must be passed by May 31. Yet the city has reduced the planned layoffs from the 344 suggested in Dohoney’s “Plan B” to 84 in the latest budget proposal.
And that’s only the latest proposal. It’s possible City Council could bring that number further down before the budget plan gets final approval.
Was a majority of the crisis averted or was there no crisis to begin with? Perhaps the city exaggerated the urgency and gravity of the cuts to pressure City Council into approving the parking plan. Maybe the cuts were overblown so local officials could come back later and look like heroes — conveniently in the middle of an election year — for reducing the cuts. Or, conceivably, city officials genuinely didn’t know that all these jobs could be saved. But even the last scenario would carry its own problems, considering it would mean city officials scared the public into believing the public safety threats without knowing all or most of the facts.
The city administration’s supporters point out that many of these jobs were saved with weakened priorities elsewhere.
But there is a difference between threatening to make cuts to the police department and the potential of making cuts within the mayor’s office. The former terrifies the public, while the latter gets a shrug. Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s how local politics work — and local leaders know it.
So threatening to lay off cops and firefighters year after year invokes a sense of urgency to budget plans that wouldn’t otherwise be there. It freaks out the public enough that it will consider supporting almost any plan — maybe even a plan that leases one of the city’s most valuable assets.
That’s not meant to take away from the parking plan. Leasing the city’s parking assets to help fund big development projects, including a downtown grocery store, could be worth it, budget deficit or not. The pros and cons are absolutely worth considering as the city continues pushing forward with the momentum it has steadily built up in the past few years, especially considering the role public-private partnerships have already played in building and keeping that momentum.
But the latest batch of good budget news depletes the credibility of the sales pitch behind the parking plan. It puts into question every threat city officials leveled at the press and opponents when they had the audacity to question the city’s claims of doom and gloom.
Even city leaders experienced some of the mockery. When Councilman Chris Seelbach insisted he would find a way to avoid the public safety layoffs without the parking plan, city administration officials seemed to do everything short of rolling their eyes at the freshman council member. When he questioned the city administration’s motives and credibility, the mayor launched into a rant about the disingenuity of city politics. City officials even used press conferences to discredit alternative budget plans like Seelbach’s Plan S, all with the implication that trying to prevent massive public safety layoffs without the parking plan was impossible.
But maybe it should have been Seelbach rolling his eyes, considering he’s the one co-sponsoring a motion, alongside Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, that would eliminate all fire department layoffs and reduce the amount of police layoffs to a mere 25.
So enjoy your job security, city’s finest. Now, some of the city’s top leaders have some explaining to do.