Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield opened today's staff retreat on the 2010-11 budget with a projected smiley face and the word "optimism."
And then he said, "But ... we've got to be realistic."
Revenue is trending down, costs are going up and making next year's ledger balance is going to be even tougher than it was last year.
"We probably haven't been here before," he said to an assembly of department managers and City Council members.
The economy's apparent rebound is slow in coming, and isn't likely to reach levels to which the nation got accustomed in the past decade, he said. Since cosumers aren't buying, sales-tax receipts are low and the tax base isn't expanding.
At the same time, "We're facing a $15 million budget gap," following the $40-million gap of last year. Two such years in a row are unprecedented, and after last year's budget cuts it's harder and harder to find items to trim. Moreover, it's going to cost more to cover debt that citizens approved back when times were flush.
Those factors suggest a tax increase, but, "What is the tolerance and willingness to pay more?" Bonfield said.
"I don't have the answers."