Auburn Council needs to make the tough calls

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There’s a fine line between impulsive and decisive, and the decision by the Auburn City Council on Tuesday night to discontinue curbside recycling for a year is an example of the former.

Councilors decided to park the city’s trucks after June 30, then spend a year working on a new recycling plan to be introduced in July 2011.

So, at the end of June, Auburn could become the largest city in the state not to offer curbside recycling. That will be a sad day for Auburn and its image.

While we would normally condemn this decision outright, this is not a normal year.

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The city must absorb a $2.7 million cut in state revenue for its 2010-11 fiscal year.  State revenue sharing is down 40 percent, excise taxes are down 15 percent and road assistance is down 24 percent.

The city would need $3.5 million in budget cuts to make up the difference, or find $3.5 million in new revenue.

That would mean a 9.18 percent property tax increase, which would equate to a $336 tax hike for a house valued at $200,000 — in other words, a political problem in even the best of times.

So, Auburn has a crisis on its hands.  But it’s not alone. Nearly every city, town and school district in the state is facing the same dismal outlook.

The council’s response has been to go all the way through the budget process before suddenly suggesting that the manager should simply cut $2.5 million from the $31 million budget.

“It can’t be done like this,” City Manager Glenn Aho told councilors.

So, the council decided the manager should make $1 million in cuts.

This isn’t like asking the city manager to go back, tighten up a few budget lines to meet a target. This will require major surgery, and it will take the patient, rational input of the city’s elected leadership to accomplish.

Councilors need to work through this budget again line by line and make the tough policy decisions to reach that goal.

Will we pave fewer roads? Trim library hours? Lay off police? Firefighters? Plow drivers? Offer fewer recreation programs? Fill fewer potholes? Turn off more streetlights?

And, yes, putting recycling on hold for a year may be one of those choices, but it is not a decision that should be made in isolation from all others.

This will be a year like none other and, barring a miracle, it will result in a tax increase for residents because of the massive state cuts.

Auburn councilors need to spend the time it takes to come up with specific solutions.

And there will be the inevitable political fallout. Adding new services is always popular; taking them away is not. And, of course, a tax increase in a tough economy will be extremely unpopular.

Councilors must be part of the difficult budget process so they can sell the ultimate budget to the public.

That’s what responsive elective leadership is all about.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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