By the time you read this, the City Council’s budget vote may be over. On Monday, the Council will finalize its $78 million general fund budget for fiscal 2011, which runs from July 1st of this year until June 30th, 2011.

During budget time each year, the city administrator presents the Council with a budget proposal that includes a variety of increases and reductions — recently, more reductions than many of us would want. Over the last decade, the city government has reorganized its staff and reduced the number of people it employs. But this hasn’t always resulted in a more efficient, less expensive city government, even though that was the original goal.

Today, the Council will vote on amendments to the administrator’s budget, and the end result will be one that is balanced. This year, that balance will be achieved by dipping into the city’s reserves for $1.5 million. Getting to that balanced budget should have been the result of a lot of hard, dedicated work by members of the Council and the staff, working together on behalf of the people of Ann Arbor. But in reality, whatever work was done on the budget didn’t happen in the City Council’s budget committee, on which I serve, and it didn’t happen in the six extra working sessions the Council has held since January. I’m not certain where this work actually happened, except the work I did myself. This is my fourth budget season on City Council, and this year I received a lot of preliminary information. Unfortunately, the process still leaves me perplexed.

A big part of this year’s budget discussions have dealt with the possibility of cuts to safety personnel. For a while, the city government has played chicken with its safety service union negotiations. I’m not involved in contract negotiations — no member of Council is – so I have no idea what’s needed to get to a final agreement. I only know that we on City Council and in the public hear that layoffs may be necessary; they may be imminent; they will (or will not) damage the city’s ability to provide a reasonable level of security to our citizens. And then, at the last minute, someone blinks. Someone agrees to something. Last year, it was retirements. This year the city found additional funding. And today, the City Council will likely approve a budget that does not lay off any police staff and reduces the firefighting staff by only five firefighters (and since one of those positions is already vacant, maybe only by four).

To get the budget to this point, the city received funding from the Downtown Development Association’s parking fund ($2 million); readjusted its estimate of State Shared Revenue on the advice of its paid lobbyist in Lansing; made some assumptions about the collection of parking fines and locked the Council into a new parking fine structure; and postponed the purchase of firefighting equipment.

But not everyone is happy. Everywhere in Michigan, people have been talking about money for well over a year. As both the country and the state of Michigan have gone through a massive economic downturn, Ann Arbor’s economy has weathered the storm comparatively well. Despite this relative success, people are still frustrated.

Perhaps it’s because people are questioning the priorities used to make decisions for the budget. From labor to parks to human services to parades, everyone in Ann Arbor and on the Council wants to fund everything. While one problem is obviously the lack of money, there also isn’t a good set of guidelines that the Council and the public understand and agree on to help make these decisions. Tempers flare during the debate over priorities, and it’s easier to fix things temporarily than to solve the underlying problems.

Next year’s budget won’t be any better. We haven’t changed the fundamental way we look at the city or the way we do business. Playing chicken with unions and rescuing popular programs at the last minute with sudden budget changes haven’t helped. Instead, they have failed to define the essential structure needed to make hard decisions in the future.

Sabra Briere is the City Council representative for the First Ward.

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