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Fiscal questions on revenue caps, transit plan remain with Flannigan after 2019

Monday, December 23, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan likes to refer to himself as the “fiscally responsible progressive” on the Council dais, pushing for ambitious action supported by the operational discipline needed to make sure money isn’t wasted.

In that light, he said 2019 left him with a lot of questions and concerns for the coming years that can all be traced back to the state Legislature’s decision to place caps on the amount cities can increase property taxes – their main source of General Fund revenue.

Much of Council and city staffers’ attention this year was spent trying to prevent the caps or make them less onerous. What’s ahead is looking at how the main city services that use General Fund dollars – public safety, fire, emergency services, parks and libraries – will feel the effects in the coming years.

Flannigan said there’s work being done to answer those questions, but he and other Council members haven’t truly faced that new reality of lower annual budget increases.

“I don’t feel like we’ve done anything to account for life under tax caps. I don’t feel like we are at all prepared at this stage. I just asked city staff, what’s happening? What’s the plan? When are we going to have these hard conversations?” he said. “The good news is staff has been all over it, holding meetings and working on efficiency to identify revenue and waste. We’ve already seen some (requests for proposal) and will see more in the new year for targeted efficiency studies to get there. But we haven’t had those conversations yet as a Council, and that’s going to have to happen early next year.”

Another pile of fiscal questions accompanies an expected vote in November for an area transit plan that is expected to cost billions to build.

Flannigan said he’s less concerned that his district, which lies northwest and includes part of Williamson County, will see immediate benefits from any transit plan, and instead wants the work done in advance to make sure the new system can remain funded to keep it operating at the level residents need.

“I’m laser-focused that whatever we do on transit, that it be financially and operationally sustainable, and we don’t befall the mistakes that cities in other parts of the country have made, where they do a big, shiny investment and then underfund operations or maintenance, or they set up a government structure that is incentivized to fail,” he said.

“It is reasonable to assume that the initial investment does not come into District 6, so I’m not as concerned about what most people are stuck on. I’m more worried about the particulars of governance and maintenance and financial sustainability. It should run right and not set up a financial cliff in the future.”

On the matter of homelessness and Council’s decision in June to decriminalize sitting and camping in public, Flannigan said he wishes there had been a way to lessen the volume of public criticism for that decision.

“Should we have saved the camping ban decision until after the July break instead of before, so we’d have been around to answer questions and engage with the community? I don’t know that that would have made a difference, or if better engagement with the state would have changed anything about the governor’s reaction,” he said. “It was incredibly bumpy and challenging and disruptive for the community, but it’s hard to think of a way to do that differently while still getting to a place where the community is unified in its belief that this needs to be solved.”

On the question of reducing homelessness, he favors a consortium approach led by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which he hopes will lead to success with the city’s new strategy of purchasing hotel properties and converting them into transitional housing.

On the personal side, Flannigan said a highlight of the year was leading the city’s Pride Parade in August accompanied by Democratic presidential primary candidate Pete Buttigieg.

“Endorsing the first openly gay major party candidate was also important to me. His military experience is also valuable, and it was a cool experience to go to his announcement with Mayor (Steve) Adler in South Bend, and then bringing him here for the Pride Parade and lead that parade with a presidential candidate … you don’t ever think those types of things will happen.”

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