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DN Editorial: A Debate Too Late

'Council of crisis' pushes back school-budget talks till post-primary May

Students press City Council to provide the school district with additional funding to avoid more than 1,000 layoffs.
Students press City Council to provide the school district with additional funding to avoid more than 1,000 layoffs.Read moreTOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

THOUGH "City Council budget hearings" is usually a phrase to excite only the most wonkish of citizens, every year there is at least one issue that generates more heat among the populace.

In recent years, that issue is usually money for schools, and what the best way is to raise that money. This year, that issue is likely to generate enough heat to make us forget this past winter, since Mayor Nutter's budget proposal calls for raising property taxes 9.3 percent to generate $105 million for the schools.

That's why the schedule for Council's budget hearings being delayed by at least a week beyond the time they normally start is problematic.

Budget hearings typically start in mid-March; this year, they don't begin until March 31. The hearing on the school budget isn't scheduled until May 26. That means that the debate over the tax hike or its alternative will come after the May primary, when all but one Council member is running for re-election.

Council is putting the blame on the delay where it likes to usually put blame: the Nutter administration. It says that the city is delaying on delivering big binders of budget details that Council needs, although the administration says that's not true.

Council President Darrell Clarke suggests that the griping about the delay is a red herring and politically motivated; Councilman Curtis Jones says that complainers are back-seat drivers who don't know what it takes to put a budget together.

Perhaps the delay isn't a conspiracy to keep campaigning Council members from having to go on the record about a property-tax hike before an election, but we do think that Council should exert some special effort to move up the debate on school funding.

The debate, after all, is not just about whether to raise property taxes. The debate will end up being about the best way to get more money for the schools, which have requested $105 million from the city.

And it's far from the first time that Council and the city have to debate this.

For the past five years, whenever the schools have come to the city for money, Council and Nutter have ended up at odds about how to find the money. It's now a predictable routine: Nutter proposes, Council delays action then offers alternatives, and then a frenzied back-and-forth ensues that ramps up the direness of what happens without the money.

It's as though our elected officials are addicted to crisis.

The delay in the budget hearings for schools until late in May doesn't leave much time between hearings and actually nailing down a solution before the budget must be voted on in June. The delay ramps up the crisis and raises the stakes even higher.

Why can't these debates happen sooner? Why can't they begin in January?

We can see the same kind of battle shaping up for this round. Council is likely to offer ideas to raise money for the schools other than a property-tax hike. But it's not likely that any will be quick to implement.

In 2013, for example, a $2-per-pack cigarette tax proposed by Nutter was, after many delays, finally approved by Council, but the hike was subject to state approval. The state finally got around to approving it in September 2014.

Budget hearings are a formal process required to vet the many details of a complicated budget.

Budget hearings shouldn't be considered problem-solving exercises. That Council and the administration must go through this crisis-driven dance every year is proof that the current process isn't working.