Following a drop in the city’s budget last year due to impacts of COVID-19, city officials are looking at increasing the budget for the 2022 fiscal year by about $33 million — a move that has some city representatives urging staff to begin detailed presentations earlier than planned.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello said she knows there will be an impact to taxpayers and wants to see detailed presentations on the budget starting earlier in the year.
“Unfortunately, that is not what’s happening and we have yet to see any kind of numbers of what’s expected … because of the pandemic,” Anello said. “I thought that we should have started this process in March. (And) here we are almost June and haven’t had a single (detailed) update.”
City staff have presented preliminary figures and plan to keep the tax rate the same, which would trigger huge property tax increases for many El Pasoans. But budget hearings aren’t set to begin until July.
City staff have held budget updates that include preliminary figures for next year that show increases in funding for public safety, quality of life projects, economic development and community health. The presentations have included proposed costs for operations and maintenance for new and existing facilities; construction and operation of three new fire academies, and two new police academies; collective bargaining agreements and and capital projects, among others.
The city will also continue to reopen services that were closed during the peak of the pandemic, including libraries and recreational facilities.
But to date, the budget updates have lacked necessary details the public should know, some council members said.
“The presentations haven’t had a clear ‘this is what we want to fund and this is how much it is going to cost,’” Annello said, adding that the council needs those details to be able to make adjustments in city spending.
City Rep. Peter Svarzbein agreed.
“This budget is going to be a tough one and I know that we’ve been talking, at least for the last six months, about wanting to break this down to a more a la carte style to really understand by department what the changes are, and how these increases and decreases are being funded,” Svarzbein said during the May 25 budget update.
Svarzbein added: “I understand if that’s something that hasn’t been done traditionally this early in the budget process, and that’s a change, but I also know that a high performing organization like the city of El Paso, under this management is able … to be flexible to adapt to changes.”
City Manager Tommy Gonzalez could not be reached for comment, but during the budget update on May 25 said there have been many changes to the way staff present budget information over the last few years. Budget workshops used to be presented to the City Council during a full week of meetings that included presentations by city departments ahead of the adoption of the budget.
Gonzalez said the process was frustrating and time consuming for staff and the council.
“What we did is we put a strategic plan in place and then the strategic plan is funded by priority,” Gonzalez said during the meeting. “Then we update the council on the budget throughout the entire year so there are no surprises.”
Svarzbein said the public also needs to understand the coming changes.
“I think giving us that opportunity to have this information broken down outside of just strategic goals into individual departments, I think will help us better inform the community and help us better inform the decisions that we need to make,” he said.
Gonzalez said he would provide council more detailed information and is scheduling one-on-one meetings with the mayor and council to go over the budget ahead of the July public meetings.
City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said she understands why the more detailed presentations are done in July.
“The problem with having those discussions sooner than later is that you’re going to have discussions just based on forecasts and models, as opposed to having clear revenue projections (or) better revenue projections based on the Central Appraisal District’s analysis,” she said. “So everything we do (until then) is just a forecast.”
The city is set to receive certified tax roll information from the Central Appraisal District at the end of July. City staff is also in the process of finding ways to expand exemptions for elderly and disabled residents. Those recommendations — which would increase taxes on those who don’t qualify for the exemptions — will be presented to the council this month.
Mayor Oscar Leeser said he recently met with Gonzalez and Chief Financial Officer Robert Cortinas and thought it was a good opportunity to ask initial questions about the budget.
“We understand that we have a lot of work ahead of us and it’s very important that we start early and look at how we can save money and (do) the best job we can do for our community,” Leeser said.
Key dates for the city budget
• June 8 – Presentation and recommendation on Over 65/Disabled exemptions
• June 22 – Presentation and recommendation on Over 65/Disabled exemptions
• July 25 – Receive certified tax roll from Central Appraisal District
• July 29 – Present certified tax roll and ordinance introducing tax rate
• Aug. 10 – Public hearing on tax rate
• Aug. 24 – Adopt FY 2022 budget and tax rate.
More information: Visit the City of El Paso website to reach the mayor and city representatives, or for City Council meeting agendas.
Author: Elida S. Perez
Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.