Dallas Laird didn't know what to make of the “TIF.” And he didn't like it.
“Could you pretend I’m a sixth-grader?” Laird asked Assistant Support Services Director Pete Meyers at a budget session on Thursday evening.
“--Twelve-year-old,” the councilman emphasized. “I’m a scout and I’ve got to earn a merit badge by understanding what you just said.”
Meyers tried again.
Tax increment financing, or a TIF, is a tool to fund urban redevelopment. A city identifies a geographic area -- in this case, the borders of Casper’s Downtown Development Authority -- that becomes the TIF district. The city calculates how much sales tax revenue is being collected within that area the year the TIF is created. Then, in its simplest construction, any additional tax revenue collected in future years goes to the redevelopment agency.
For example, if the city collects $100,000 in tax revenue from sales in downtown Casper in 2017, that would become the TIF benchmark. If the city collects $110,000 in 2018, the additional $10,000 goes to the DDA. But if only $95,000 is collected, the city keeps all of the money.
The idea is to provide a low-risk way for cities to fund urban renewal and to provide an incentive for a redevelopment agency to boost economic growth -- after all, if sales don’t grow, the agency won’t receive any funding.
“Why would we want to do that?” Laird asked.
“I don’t know,” Meyers said.
Meyers is part of the city’s professional staff, meant to manage straightforward municipal operations but to seek direction from the elected Council for items like a TIF. He continued with his presentation. The DDA’s request for a TIF was more complicated than the standard model and called for the city to guarantee an annual transfer to the agency.
“So this is just kind of a convoluted, fancy way of shuffling money?” Laird asked.
Laird has a slight build, a shock of white hair and thick stubble in the shape of a goatee. He sat at the far end of the conference table and was leaning all the way back in his chair.
Appointed by City Council on May 19 to fill the seat vacated when Todd Murphy resigned last month, Laird was brought on in part for his legal expertise.
The trial attorney has been practicing in Casper for decades. His website features a newspaper clipping: “Lawyer Wins Acquittal in Murder-for-Hire Case Despite Video of Transaction.”
And now he was cross-examining city staff.
“There’s definitely money-shuffling that exists, and there’s definitely risk for the city,” Meyers replied.
“What’s your recommendation?”
Mayor Kenyne Humphrey jumped in: “You don’t have to answer that,” she told Meyers.
“If they can’t say it to me in plain old English, then I always have my feelers blow up,” Laird said.
He wasn't opposed to funding the DDA but preferred to consider individual requests on an annual basis rather than locking the city into a long-term commitment.
The TIF didn't pass.
Adjusting to Council
City Council members were eager to have a complete panel before discussing the budget this past week. But it also required a steep learning curve.
Toward the end of the meeting Laird complained about a “homework assignment” from Humphrey. She asked Council members to take a list of potential programs to cut and select which ones they would like to keep and which they would like to drop.
“You have to spend five hours doing it,” Laird said.
“Welcome to Council,” Humphrey responded curtly.
But despite his reluctance to go through the list of programs, Laird was eager to get his hands dirty.
For a Council novice, Laird played a major role in the budget process on Thursday, requesting that staff draft very brief summaries of drastic budget cuts to contrast with the proposed budget. Interim City Manager Liz Becher's plan features cost savings and consolidation but largely maintains staffing and service levels by spending around $5 million in reserves.
The other council members elected this year -- Amanda Huckabay, Chris Walsh and Jesse Morgan -- wanted something similar. They wanted options.
But Laird was the most forceful.
He balked at reading the proposed budget to come up with suggestions for cuts, arguing that his expertise paled in comparison to city staff’s and that it would be simpler to provide him with a few sheets of paper summarizing budgets with different levels of spending.
“I got three pieces of paper -- then I have to make a decision,” Laird proposed. “These decisions, truly, they’re not hard. They’re easy.”
Laird said he trusted city staff’s judgment and wanted their recommendations on different budget options. But when Councilman Bob Hopkins noted that the proposed budget already represented staff’s recommendation, Laird bristled.
"What you’re saying to me is the easy way to do it,” Laird said. “I don’t think this is easy.”
Laird dominated the conversation on Thursday, employing theatrics to make a point that seemed to be this: Council shouldn’t approve a budget that includes spending a large amount of the city’s $20 million savings without understanding what would happen if it didn’t spend those reserves.
At one point his phone rang, playing what sounded like Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.”
Fire Chief Kenny King, who was sitting behind Laird, nodded his head to the music.
King became a foil.
Spending $5 million in reserves was alarming, Laird said.
“When these guys hear an alarm, what do you do?” he asked the chief.
“Jump,” King replied.
“Do you guys prepare for fires?”
Later Laird went back to King.
“If the Rialto starts blowing -- you sit here arguing about how you’re going to do it or do you have a battle plan?”
“I don’t think we have a battle plan,” Laird had said earlier. “I want to see a battle plan.”
“We have reserves,” Becher said as Laird kept speaking.
At another point, Laird asked that a crystal ball be placed on the table next to the “touchstones” painted with Council’s priorities -- public safety and sustainable funds and services -- which Becher said had guided staff’s budget process.
A new guard?
Through Laird was the most vocal, a division emerged between the four newly seated Council members and those who had been through previous budget processes: Humphrey, Hopkins and Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco.
Longtime councilman Charlie Powell was absent from most of the meeting, and Shawn Johnson was not in attendance.
“Staff presented a budget to me that was conservative on an already stretched thin organization,” Humphrey said after the meeting. “To ask them to blindly cut everywhere with such short time to even make those considerations, I don’t think is a healthy way to get through the budget.”
But the new council members were frustrated that the week of budget presentations didn’t feature contrasting options or an opportunity for Council to ask staff to explain the pros and cons of specific cuts.
Morgan, who is known to meticulously prepare for Council meetings, had a list of questions:
- Could the city save money by privatizing services like road maintenance?
- Could the city reduce the $1.5 million subsidy for the Casper Recreation Center?
- Could the Humane Society relieve some of the burden on Metro Animal Shelter?
- Would Casper’s reserves be better spent on direct efforts to stimulate economic growth?
Becher and Humphrey had told Council that after the three days of presentations concluded, Thursday evening would be the time for questions and new proposals for how to shape the budget.
But the meeting ran over its allotted time and as Humphrey tried to postpone the discussion until Tuesday, frustration bubbled over.
“I think we need to call it a night because we’re totally not getting anywhere,” Humphrey said.
“This is supposed to be Thursday,” Morgan replied. “You made us wait for this particular day.”
Laird said he needed to have the short-form summaries of budgets with massive cuts before Tuesday’s meeting. He asked Meyers whether that was doable.
“I think that’s putting him on the spot,” Hopkins objected. “I’m not OK doing that, Dallas.”
“I’m here to be put on the spot,” Dallas shot back.
“I know you are,” Hopkins said.
“I’ll put you on the spot,” Laird said, before Humphrey intervened.
But Laird and the new Council members largely prevailed. Council will draft a budget summary showing what would happen if the city spent no reserves. That’s not quite what Laird wanted when he called for a “1929 budget” -- a reference to the Great Depression -- but it’s close.
He was surprised they had not come to the budget session with a backup spending plan in place.
“I don’t think anybody said to them, ‘Give me the bare-bones budget,’” Laird said on Friday.
Whether his push will actually lead Council to adopt a budget without the use of reserves -- which staff judged would require the elimination of 60 jobs or shuttering facilities -- is unclear.
Laird said there were “leaky systems” within city government that staff was protecting in the proposed budget for political reasons. But he didn’t think staff was intentionally concealing those leaks.
In an interview, he pointed to people commenting on newspaper articles about the budget as evidence that projects like David Street Station might be superfluous. Moments later, though, he undermined their arguments.
“If we did what all those people said, we’d be living in caves,” Laird said.
But, he said, it can’t hurt to look. That’s what he joined Council to do: ask questions and make tough decisions.
For her part, Humphrey thinks that in the end, drafting new budgets will all be for naught.
“Staff will come back with ways to save $5 million and I think Council will say, ‘We don’t want to do this, this and this,’ and we will probably be just about right back to where we were,” she said.