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Bruce Kaskubar: Rochester's half-billion-dollar budget

Budget approval day is Dec. 6. Will anything change now that those on the council, concerned about their tax bill, are in a position to affect it?

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Bruce Kaskubar Monday, June 21, 2021, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it.”

― George W. Bush

It was good to see city council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick lament her ever-rising property taxes. She’s not alone. Randy Petersen did a nice article about that .

I’ve been skeptical of city spending since the effort to activate the natural gas franchise fee . After claiming we needed its million dollars for police and streets, the council withered in the face of resistance and voted it down, 4‑3. Just two months later, the council found $5.5 million to buy the Chateau theater for which it had no planned use.

Digging into 2022’s budget, all I found was a 690-page PDF plus some others. Once upon a time, council president Randy Staver provided general ledger spreadsheets on the city’s website. I asked the city for that. Rochester Director of Finance Dale Martinson told me, “We do not have the reports in Excel, but many programs exist that can convert them, somewhat successfully.” Thanks. Somewhat.

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The city council met Nov. 8 for a final review and Q&A. There weren’t many questions.

Staff pulled out the typical bromides to grease the skids:

  1. Less than a fifth of the city’s budget comes from property taxes.
  2. Rochester’s 6.5% levy increase since 2020 is good compared to Duluth’s 9% and St. Cloud’s 10.7%.

Is No. 1 supposed to make us think we’re getting free money from elsewhere to support our budget? Rubbish. Almost half the budget comes from service charges. Where does that money come from? Businesses and citizens. Where do businesses get their money? Citizens. Other categories include intergovernmental revenue, other taxes, and licenses and permits. Where’s that come from? Businesses and citizens. Rinse and repeat. It all comes back to us. And miscellaneous is the second largest funding source. What’s up with that?
As to No. 2, other cities’ numbers are pointless. How they’re spending their money is their business. How we’re spending our money is our business. Should we be buying what we’re paying for? If we bought less, taxes, service charges, and license fees could be reduced.

So far, the budget is recommended, not final. The city’s 690-pager includes budget summaries that add to $299 million. Yet the total budget is said to be $494 million. There is no reason for the summaries to exclude over 1/3 of the total.

Let’s look at some increases in budget items since 2019 (because 2020 and 2021 were messed up by you-know-what). Dollars are millions.

Central Business District maintenance is copying administration’s homework, doubling.City Administration is going hog wild on almost everything: advertising, benefits, communication, consultants, insurance, printing, salaries, and travel. The mayor’s office used to be rolled into the city council line items. They’re separate now but the council budget is about the same as it was before the divorce while the mayor’s is about half that, again.

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The $10 million, above, could be considered a rounding error in a $494 million budget but it’s not nothing. And there’s much more to look at such as capital expenditures and staffing.

At the Nov. 8 meeting, council member Molly Dennis joined Kelly Rae’s property tax lament and said we should find places to trim the budget. She figured it wasn’t the council’s job. She thought it was staff’s job. No, Molly, it’s your job. You represent the citizens. Staff represents leviathan.

Budget approval day is Dec. 6. Will anything change now that those on the council, concerned about their tax bill, are in a position to affect it?

Call or write your council member to find out.

Bruce Kaskubar, of Rochester, is a former chairman of the Olmsted County Republican Party. His opinions are his own.

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