Fingers Crossed: 15th Annual Municipal Survey

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | February 2012, Vol. 67 No. 2

Overall, actual spending in 2011 decreased from 2010. However, many respondents emphasized that the last six months of the year saw city coffers actually receiving a slight bump in their revenue streams. “We felt good enough about the positive money trends that we actually bumped our 2012 budget slightly,” pointed out this Nebraska official. “It ain’t much, but its progress!”

Said this respondent from Tennessee, “We’re under a consent decree, so we’ve really been struggling to get through this recession and still meet our EPA obligations. But our budget is actually larger this year. Hopefully, we’re not being overly optimistic.”

“No doubt it’s going to be a very long road back – we were behind in 2008 and now we’re really behind,” said this Arizona city representative. “But we feel like the worst is behind us.”

The ongoing recession has put a financial strain on cities all across the nation. Municipal bankruptcies are rare but there were several in 2011. The net result is that sewer and water systems, already typically at the political bottom of a city’s financial pecking order, are being forced to deal with decaying infrastructure needs with less staff and a diminishing funding base. “We’re constantly being asked to do more with less,” complained a respondent from the Mid-Atlantic area. “But the problem is that we’ve already been doing that for years without relief.”

Another city official from the Southwest said his staff was outraged when “we’re struggling to have enough money and manpower to fix water leaks during the drought last summer and the big topic at a city council meeting was where they could find money to fix up a city park – the money came out of our budget!”

Absurd situations like that aside, municipal managers across the country are struggling with continued funding issues while striving to meet their fiduciary responsibilities to their citizens. “We know that money is very tight for all city departments,” said this respondent from New York state. “We all have to do our part. But when we have the EPA breathing down our neck for not making the repairs we promised, something has got to give.”

Maintaining services
Several respondents expressed concern that their cities will be able to maintain services if they don’t get some financial relief soon. “Attempting to do our work with a constantly shrinking budget and fewer man hours is by far the biggest issue we’re facing,” said a city official from Ohio. “And overtime is none existent as well.”