Correction: $1,500,000 from the city's unassigned fund balance was used to create three reserve accounts for Rochester Fire, DPW and Pubic Buildings at last Tuesday's City Council vote. An earlier version of this posting had the incorrect amount. We apologize for any confusion.
When Rochester Mayor Paul Callaghan introduced Tuesday's City Council segment on the city's response to pubic comment during the April 19 workshop, he mischaracterized what occurred.
"On our April public hearing there was some lively and spirited debate about our unfunded balance fund (unassigned fund balance, he meant) and some other funds the city uses."
We don't care that the mayor doesn't know what the name of the fund is. It doesn't matter.
But what we do care about is that he said there was some lively and spirited debate.
No one got up and exhorted city officials to squirrel away $1,500,000 in three newly established reserve accounts the city had never ever used before.
No one got up and cheered the city on to establish these accounts and forego any thought of returning this money to the people in the form of property tax relief that could help a lot of struggling Rochester families when they get their tax bills in December.
There was no debate, Mr. Mayor.
What you had were two state reps and several other city residents who are concerned that Rochester is frustrating, subverting and stifling the intent of the tax cap, which is to keep taxes and city spending under control.
More than 70 percent of the residents of Rochester voted for the tax cap in 2008, and if you asked whether the city should squirrel this money away or give it back to the people in the form of tax relief, we'd wager 70 percent of Rochester residents would vote for tax relief.
You see while Rochester taxpayers are struggling to feed their families and put gasoline in their car so they can commute to work during this period of hyperinflation, city officials are bent on squirreling away excess cash.
Now we could cut Mayor Callaghan some slack on his ill-advised use of "spirited debate," but what the city manager did was make Rochester city government appear totally devoid of transparency.
About a week after the April 19 public hearing, The Rochester Voice sent City Manager Blaine Cox an email requesting an interview so we could go over what the arguments had been against the establishment of these reserve accounts and what options the city had to use the excess unassigned fund balance money.
Two hours later Cox's response was, "The Mayor has requested I put together some responses to the questions posed by the two state reps. I will deliver these responses next Tuesday and would be happy to speak with you after next Tuesday."
Isn't that like "closing the barn door after the horse has bolted."
So the city talks about being transparent, open-minded and accountable.
But it's only lip service.
A couple of suggestions:
First, it's clear the public is frustrated with the city's unwillingness to engage in debate. They give you five minutes and look on politely while you pour out your heart on things you believe in. What the city should do is allow you to ask a questions with a single follow-up, which likely wouldn't add much time to a meeting. The city could work out a timeframe. Perhaps give them three minutes and a question and follow-up that can't go longer than five minutes total.
Second, the city should look at changing the rules so that supplemental appropriations from the unassigned fund balance need a super-majority or two-thirds vote to pass. Interestingly, the reserve accounts would have all failed had a super-majority vote been required (they all passed 8-3).