The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

February 28, 2014

Focus on the future, not on individual needs

By Scott Levine
Herald Associate Editor

---- — Some day in the future, I would like to think this time of year will include a bit more positivity.

For the last few years, budget planning for the next fiscal year in the Gateway area hasn’t generated the pats on the back or the warm feelings that most cities strive to see.

The Clinton School District is cutting positions, the city of Clinton is ceasing operations at the Lyons branch of the Clinton Public Library and Camanche officials are using reserve funds to piece together a final budget that featured a $110,000 deficit.

With a steadily decreasing population and an aging demographic, area leaders are searching for answers on how to reverse the trends from the past decades.

Budget discussions are not for the faint of heart. These decisions affect everyone, not just the employees that may see pay decreases, increased workloads or lose jobs.

To make sure our area is prepared for the future, the decision-makers, department heads and residents should have a common goal. We should all be concerned with making this area the best it can be, and not focus on what’s best for each individual’s interests.

City of Clinton residents received a cut in property taxes after some City Council members were determined to reduce fees. New council members cited voters’ displeasure with rising fees, so they cut the average tax-asking by an average of $13.27 per year for citizens.

Some have scoffed at that savings as miniscule. But residents are ready for a change. Clinton residents pay high taxes. Whether it’s on our property, sewers or water (which isn’t levied by the city of Clinton), we have to pay high prices.

Most residents will take any cut they can get.

Just ask Clinton School District Superintendent Deb Olson about the decreasing population in Clinton. The district’s enrollment has dwindled during the years, directly affecting how much money the district receives. There are a few factors for declining enrollment, but a major factor is the lack of student-age children.

How are we going to get people to live in Clinton, and the area, with high fees? It’s one thing to bring in development and have places to work. It’s another to convince families to live here.

Lowering tax rates is one way…but at what cost?

Clinton Public Library Director Amy Birtell has a tough job. She’s felt the brunt of cuts since she came to Clinton in 2011.

Her department experienced the biggest cut of all during the most recent budget discussions, with a $40,783 reduction.

It’s easy to cut funds from the library. Do City Council members use the library? Are there picketers ready to storm City Hall? How many phone calls will be patched through to city officials if the library endures a hefty cut from its budget?

The line of complainers will be less if things like the library take the cut. But we can’t keep cutting things like the library if we want the area’s future to be bright.

The library functions as a means for low-income individuals to have an opportunity to experience technology and possibly receive more education.

It also acts as a quality-of-life function, something the city is in dire need to promote. If we want people to live in this area, we need things to do. We need our swimming pool to be open. We need our parks and riverfront to be welcoming. And we need a library to offer people an opportunity to meet with other adults, teenagers, children and parents in a learning environment.

Ask a teenager or even an adult what there is to do in this town. Your answer will likely be, “nothing.” Is that true? No. But it will be if we want to only focus on saving a few departments and only cutting back on others. The perception of “nothing to do” will become a reality if that continues.

I believe in lower fees. I want to be safe. However, I also want something for my family to do.

The department heads involved in all these decisions should be commended. It’s not easy to slash money from budgets. It’s not easy to be grilled by City Council members. And it’s not easy to explain the necessity of each department to people who likely don’t know the exact workings of each entity.

We’re all in this together. Industry is starting to move back, which is evidenced by the continued developments at the Lincoln Way Rail and Air Park. That’s a good sign.

Now the work begins on getting people to live in this area.

It’s a competitive world in luring people to live in a specific area, especially with the explosion of population in bigger cities. There’s several factors that matter in increasing population and I hope city leaders don’t sidestep one to focus only on a few specific areas.

This will be a work in progress and tough budget discussions will likely continue, not only in January and February, but during the year. More questions are being asked by city officials, and with that, more spirited discussion will follow.

My hope is that everyone involved in these decisions, from City Council members to all department heads, have a similar vision — to be concerned with the area’s future and not on one’s own individual interests.

Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at scottlevine@clintonherald.com.