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Bossier City squandering endangers its financial health

There seems to be trouble brewing in paradise, better known to elected officials and political insiders there as Bossier City, as a couple of their own seem to be straying off the reservation. If only it could be that over the thunderous din arising from politicians’ incessant patting themselves on their own backs that more of these voices asking for a reality check could be heard – and one which voters might be well advised to assist.

Over the past month, Bossier City got presented with another quantum growth in the size of city government. Commonly known is that long before it became fashionable courtesy of the president-elect to preach of “investing” in government, Bossier City has practiced it -- $56.5 million on an arena that historically loses operating funds, not even considering opportunity and indirect costs; $21 million for a parking garage for private developers that will not be paid off in added tax receipts for decades, if ever; and the latest, $35 million to a cyberspace startup with little chance much of the government spinoff business on which it was breathlessly predicated ever will come this way.

Less well known is that in its operating expenses the city has been profligate. From 1998 through 2007, spending in its three major areas outside of debt have mushroomed – public safety being the largest area with the most growth of over 88 percent, general government up nearly 60 percent, and culture and recreation nearly 225 percent (over all of these three which make up over 90 percent of recurring non-debt related expenditures the increase is 89 percent). This has been reflected by the number of employees added by the city over that time, rising by nearly a quarter, with dozens more added to the payroll this year and 16 more asked for next year.

To add insult to injury, spending recently has begun to outstrip revenues, forcing the city to dip into its reserves. For the general fund, which is where the majority of tax collections go, its projected cushion would be only $4 million, down 70 percent in just three years. This got the attention of Democrat Councilman Don “Bubba” Williams and independent Councilman Jerome Darby, who wondered about the prudence of the latest budget which has increased general fund spending almost 14 percent in just the past two years.

One could argue that the cost of living could account for some of this increase. But the producer price index increased only a little under 39 percent during these 10 years, meaning Bossier City spending increased at a rate over twice as fast. And even giving a pass on increased public safety spending, the fact remains other spending increased at about the same high rate.

Defenders of the status quo, much like their brethren in Washington whose free-spending ways cost them Congress, Councilmen Republicans David Jones and Tim Larkin argue that because the “city is growing” such increased expenditures are needed. If so, they need to check the city’s own internal figures which show the population increased only about 6 percent in the 10 years from 1998 inclusive. This means per capita major item spending has increased almost 80 percent in that period, and employees per capita have increased 18 percent. Simply, spending (and hiring) is growing far beyond what a population increase could explain.

The other major defense of this spendaholicism is that it’s a revenue problem, not a spending problem. City Finance Director Joe Buffington keeps saying if property tax millages weren’t consistently rolled back, there would be millions in extra revenue available.

However, Buffington doesn’t bother to admit that city revenues from property taxes have increased dramatically in these ten years, almost 56 percent, because the total value of assessed property in city boundaries (mostly because of improvements to property and some from a rising real estate market) went up 75 percent. The sad fact is, despite this impressive escalation, spending rose even faster (for their part, sales taxes doubled plus five percent). Perhaps to increase revenue Buffington should pay more attention to a property tax collection rate that once was close to 100 percent which has gone below 95 percent during his tenure, costing the city about a half a million dollars a year.

The voracious appetite of Bossier City government bothers not Republican Mayor Lo Walker and the GOP majority on the Council. When queried about the city’s deteriorating financial condition and his budget, Walker blithely answered if people didn’t like it, they could vote its supporters out of office this spring (in other words, it was like he held up perhaps on both hands his index, middle, and ring fingers together, and said, “read between the lines,” by which he definitely would not mean this column). Let's hope enough members of the Council at least will alter the budget that they will soon consider before it comes to that.

If not, the dual arrogance and imbecility most Bossier City’s elected officials have on this issue in fact should elevate Walker’s observation to the level of an imperative. Booting these spendthrifts out of office maybe the only way both the sustained squandering of the city’s tax dollars and of its potential can be halted.

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