Nearly six months into the budget year, citizen financial scrutineer John Marshall Lee asked the City Council a series of questions to consider Monday night. Are they paying attention to the small and large print? From Lee:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Bridgeport City Council, I was absent from forum during the month of November. I took time to read, research and reflect in more detail where we may be today as a City with serious fiscal problems, in a State facing the same issues and in the country of my birth where at this moment we do not have a good handle on where we are presently and fully accurately much less where we are headed.
For Thanksgiving I prepared a message on the topic of what it may mean in the world today to be a “good citizen.” Before leaving my office this afternoon, I sent a copy of that article to each of you in the hope that you will read it. Perhaps you will share the ideas contained if you think them worthwhile. Will you let me know your thoughts if you sense we are in disagreement?
December is the month of the year when you will see a listing of the “year in review.” Calendar year 2016 will be special in that regard for the many changes worldwide. Locally it has been Mayor Ganim’s first complete 12 months with his “second chance” term. Most memorable at this location were the number of people who came out from all parts of the City due to the higher tax notices that were unexpected based on campaign rhetoric. Taxes will be remembered at election time 11 months from now.
Are you reading the monthly financial report to see how revenues and expenses are projected and working out? We are in the sixth month of the Fiscal Year but the results through four months just hit your desks. How will you explain the significant reserves you agreed to budget to increase city fund balances (hopefully) at year end, or the level of pension contributions for underfunded plans while ignoring the cries on the education budget? Building reserves does not register with voters the way the school budget necessary cuts in their operating budget have.
The Police Department budget is “phony” because of bloat beyond this year. Ken Flatto has done a good job of preparing some notes, but the 29 new members of the force in 2016 and the new class of 23 just sworn in does not add up to the 100 promised. And members of the Department still are retiring. Is a bigger solution necessary? What public goal will serve to show that management has a handle on the issue? One hundred more in a year was not honest. Are there other solid public safety initiatives that might be pursued to eliminate the serious overtime payments necessary that create an even greater City pension obligation that is already underfunded?
One year ago $950,000 disappeared from the Office of Planning and Economic Development Capital budget without approval by you, or a review and approval at any level. It seems to have gone to the Port Authority, a quasi-public entity, to pay off debt they incurred ten years previously. Why? The PA is located in City Hall and the City managers have taken in the revenues and paid the bills of that group for the past nine years, but there is no available fiscal record of annual reports for you to review since an auditor reported in December 2008. Outrageous, I suggest. A real failure in governance and we stand here tonight one year later with no announced consequences or financial reporting. Why?
There are other areas of concern within the City that affect property owners and residents and harm them. How is it right to collect revenues from citizens or taxpayers and not report them as such in Department results? Who provides oversight in such instances? If a Department is allowed to report balanced or surplus actual budgets for years and evidence surfaces that actual expenses are higher than those reported, is it a problem if the annual variance expense is $100,000 or $150,000 or more? Should the external auditor catch such situations?
There are several private taxpaying citizens with expertise assisting me in the study of City financial reports. We have enjoyed the willingness of Finance and Office of Policy Management leadership to provide public information and comment. As For Sale signs spring up around the City and long-time neighbors find themselves driven out by property tax payments greater than fixed incomes, we need to work together for a better financial path. Can it be done? Time will tell.