Almost time for annual budget ritual

It’s almost time for the annual budget ritual that occurs with the government news beats I cover.

Procedures involve taking county and city departments’ monetary “wish lists” for the coming year and throwing them into one big pot of gold. After weeks of pooling all these budgetary requests together and tossing them around into the goody bag, you shave a few items here and there, toss a few into the “future years” bin, and present the scaled down version of the temporary budget to the public.

Very rarely is there an actual property tax cut involved.

But you let the public know in demonstrative and vocal ways how you spent hours of your due diligence to get the spending plan to what we all think is palatable. You can tell your constituents: “Look how accountable your leaders are. The proposed budget originally showed a 35 percent tax hike, but look what we did. We scaled it down to a 5 percent tax hike.” Be grateful.

It’s kind of like telling your child to pick up 35 presents at the local toy store for Christmas, but then saying … nawww … we were just kidding. You’ll get four or five this year, son.

Governments go through this routine annually, and most of the time they withhold any documents related to the budget process. Sometimes, as a reporter, I can hardly get any figures practically until the day of public hearing time, Most of the time, government representatives have made up their minds, anyway. Usually, that fiscal supernova known as “fund balance” – an extra source of money used to pay down a huge tax rate increase – comes to the rescue.

Government bodies actually have little faith that John Q. Public actually understand the budget. They wait till the last second to make public most figures, like the impending tax hike. What you don’t know won’t hurt you is more often than not the philosophy.

The processes by which governments go through their annual budgets are actually becoming more lame than ever. Politicians convene in a chambers for several hours for what they call a “workshop.” After several half-hearted whacks at the budget pinata, they raise tax rates anyway.

They never seem to grasp that the only true way to dramatically cut these budgets is is hack programs and lay off many people at one time. Both of those options are never fun for small town legislators whose friends and family are employed by local government. Nickle and diming budgets gains them very little. But the exercise plays well in public.

For what it’s worth, the budgets I cover are on deck again, this time for 2018. The Fulton County Board of Supervisors’ Finance Committee went through a “budget review” meeting on Wednesday. The county won’t release its tentative budget until Nov. 13. Don’t be surprised if the public hears the supervisors boast how much they’ve cut already.

I’ve tried to get 2018 budget figures out of the city of Johnstown, but nothing doing yet. At some point, I’m sure the city will release its so-called “mayor’s budget,” which I find curiously named.

∫ Speaking of budgets, Greater Johnstown School District officials are correct to point out that after the Johnstown Public Library becomes a “school district public library,” district taxpayers won’t be paying for the library out of the district’s official tax levy. That payment will “show up on the school tax bill,” but it is “not a school tax.” School district officials want The Leader-Herald to get this clear and right.

We understand. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, “doth protest too much, methinks.”

∫ Johnstown Postmaster Lori Driscoll submitted paperwork to federal postal authorities nominating one of her postal carriers — Nicole Hunt of Dolgeville — for a “Hero Award” given by the U.S. Postal Service. Hunt’s quick action help save the life of Johnstown resident Judi Gosselin on Sept. 18. Certain people saved my life, five years ago, so I appreciate heroes very much. I enjoyed writing the original story, and look forward to reprising it if Hunt receives the award.

∫ The recent Bacon Jam in Gloversville gave it a great try for a first effort. Some suggestions: more bacon vendors, enough bacon food to last the last two hours, and let the beer drinkers enjoy themselves in front of the musicians.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the newspaper or its editorial board.