Stillwater News Press

February 8, 2010

Stillwater budget problem: Define it, solve it

Our View

Stillwater NewsPress

— What a difference a word makes.

Or does it?

Our NewsPress headline Tuesday, “City budget in shambles,” has sparked a tirade from Stillwater city management. We’re betting they won’t like the word tirade much, either.

But, like shambles, it is a word that describes a situation or event. Our headline was not an attack on the city manager or the City Council or choices or directives or management decisions. It was not about blame.

It was a descriptive word to illustrate the seriousness of the funding situation in our community, much like in our state and our nation.

City Manager Dan Galloway, in an e-mail to the NewsPress, takes issue with the term shambles. Here, in part, is what he writes:

“In my opinion, someone should check the meaning of that word before using it as a label on this one (story.) Here is what the dictionary offers:

     a.    A scene or condition of complete disorder or ruin

    b.    Great clutter or jumble; a total mess

    c.    A place or scene of bloodshed or carnage.

    d.    A scene or condition of great devastation.

    e.    A place or scene of bloodshed or carnage.

    f.    A scene or condition of great devastation.”

We go to Merriam-Webster online for our own research regarding the word shambles, and find:

 1 archaic : a meat market

 2 : slaughterhouse

 3 a : a place of mass slaughter or bloodshed <the battlefield became a shambles> b : a scene or a state of great destruction : wreckage <the city was a shambles after the bombing> c (1) : a scene or a state of great disorder or confusion <an economy in shambles> (2) : great confusion: mess

The fact no one has accused us of categorizing the city budget as a meat market illustrates that words can have multiple meanings that don’t fit a case and yet still be used in context.

“A scene of great disorder or confusion; great confusion; a mess” - what part of that does not describe how our state and nation’s economy has left the budgets of our state government, cities, businesses and our personal households? If a $4.5 million budget deficit isn’t a mess, what dollar figure represents the magic number for Stillwater? Merriam-Webster, not the NewsPress, provided the example: “an economy in shambles.”

The story beneath the headline Tuesday chronicled the city manager’s presentation to City Council members and steps the city has taken to deal with economy-triggered revenue decline - soliciting proposals, successfully making up more than $1.6 million “by freezing vacant positions, cutting costs on materials and supplies, cutting back on services and putting off scheduled projects.”

But to get to the story, the city manager and city councilors will have to get past the headline.

Apparently not everyone did. Here’s what Vice Mayor Tom Dugger e-mails regarding the “Shambles” headline:

“I personally believe that the NEWSPRESS (Mr. Dugger’s emphasis, not ours) has acted in a wholly irresponsible manner given the presentation last night to the Council and from the numerous updates we have seen during this fiscal year. Such irresponsible reporting, in my opinion, lacks understanding of the reports, professional responsibility, and newspaper ethics. It is a shame.”

Mr. Dugger addressed his e-mail to the city manager and copied it to Publisher Pam Nelson and the editor.

His final instruction to Mr. Galloway:  “I am simply deeply disappointed. I am, by this sentence authorizing you to use any of this email in comments to others that you deem appropriate, including my fellow members of Council.”

And what does that mean? We don’t know for sure, but if it is a request to disseminate the vice mayor’s remarks disparaging the NewsPress, well, we printed those remarks here. We also routinely print Stillwater city councilors’ e-mail addresses, in case the vice mayor does not otherwise have access to those.

Does it matter whether the state of public finance and budgeting is perceived to be in shambles or disarray or in a state of devastation or simply a big mess?

What matters is how our city, its councilors and its management are taking on the challenge of operating the city’s business in these financially troubled times.

Questions that have arisen in passing before - should the city be in the golf course business, how many attorneys does a city this size need - are arising again in earnest as revenue dwindles and tough decisions have to be made.

The mayor told us last spring he doesn’t think the city should be in competition with private business. Our city library, he reasoned, takes business away from a local bookstore.

If that is the way voting members of our City Council are thinking when it comes to cutting back, we commend Mr. Galloway for taking his polling for proposals beyond city hall and to the people of our community.

Do we want a library? A swimming pool? A golf course? Trash collection one day each week, or two days?

What do you think, NewsPress reader? What are your suggestions for reducing city spending? Mr. Galloway wants to know and so do we.

It’s in the interest of all for our city management to look beyond headlines and dig deeper into the story of our economic woes and the means available to solve them.