A Fiscal Watchdog For City Council?

Shortly before the City Council voted to approve a budget to begin July 1, city fiscal scrutineer John Marshall Lee had several questions for the legislative body, including “how about hiring a full time fiscal watchdog reporting to Budget and Appropriations so that you may better exercise your important power in budget formation and oversight that the Charter calls you to perform?” From Lee:

Soon you will make the balance of your decisions that will affect taxpayers for 2018-19. My comments will come too late to assist tonight’s vote, but attention to them currently may prove of significant help for your 2019-20 Fiscal Year decisions one year from now.

I have reviewed the CAFR, this year’s budget and looked at some numbers from OPEN BUDGET the MUNIS based reporting system installed a year ago that purports to accuracy. Bridgeport spends $24,000 annually on that system we were told. Do you know how many “hits” this system is getting monthly or annually? Do the math, please. Is that system valuable to us? I have compared data on actual checks reported by this system and while data should be identical with MUNIS from other sources, why are as many as 30% of audited categories showing sums and totals in disagreement with the Actual Budget data reported elsewhere? Can you trust the numbers?

Comparisons of Actual Expenses from each of the past 4-5 years have indicated significant opportunity to question the rise of Budgeted Expenses in many departments that have crept in and stayed in. When you are not presented such data initially, it is unfair to fault your lack of understanding of differences between Actual and Budgeted later. Perhaps that is a procedure you might implement next year? Other cities have as many as 8 weeks to do their deliberations. Why don’t you make a plan right now to spend next March reviewing and comparing the Actual results from 2014 to 2019 and see what areas have overrun average increases, and then ask the departments for explanations? Waiting for the night when you may get a response though not a numerical justification may help you.

Trust the numbers provided to you, do you? Please turn to Revenue numbers for any monthly financial report from Finance since August, 2017 and go to Org. 01030 In Plant Printing. Those of you present last year may remember me reporting $800,000 of operating expenses actually, beyond what Finance was reporting to you, an average of $160,000 per year. I do not know who checked into the facts of the situation and budgeted Printing Department with only $10,000 revenue for the entire year, do you? Who recorded the July revenue of $6,557 and found no other revenue for the current year in monthly report after monthly report? I don’t trust the numbers. At a time when we cannot supply more necessary revenue to benefit the education of our youth, why do we maintain a Print Shop? Do yourself a favor with your budget analyst and get to the bottom of the real revenue flow, the real work produced and see if eliminating the department won’t free up at least a net $250,000 per year for priorities.

The bonding you approved to refund our bond portfolio this year was accomplished at a “present value increased expense” overall, rather than a savings as in recent years. It pushed back some debt payments into future years to allow the City some room to get to a balanced budget. But there was no PRIORITY or purpose emphasized by the Mayor that would countenance such restructuring, an overall poor practice. Debt service should proceed based on a schedule provided to you each year and not on an estimate. The same is true of the scores of accounts opened for each bonded project. Where is such a schedule? Where are current explanations? Or a quarterly report showing City progress to taxpayers?

Why does Lighthouse maintain a special fund of $600,000, from parent fees of past years? Maintained by the City when all such revenues are needed this year? Why is the fund kept as a hidden reserve?

And if I were to show you a way to cut Police Department OT by $2 Million to $5 Million, would that be of interest? Not easy but entirely possible when you begin to think holistically about City needs.

Finally, how about hiring a full time fiscal watchdog reporting to Budget and Appropriations so that you may better exercise your important power in budget formation and oversight that the Charter calls you to perform? Time will tell.

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5 comments

  1. A good idea but what I hear is that it is ohhh-sooo complicated and the City Charter may not even allow it. Beyond that,Most CC members absolutely refused to give up their stipends to possibly pay for some advice.

  2. Frank,
    When you look at the Legislative Budget for years, there has been an average of $90,000 available each year and relatively little is spent. If they dedicated $60,000 to such a part time (?), financial (?) position with a person skilled in technology and able to research, we could term that person “the taxpayer’s friend” because there is no one else getting a City paycheck who is looking at the value of funds spent after the City Council provides approval……and there should be such a person. Heck, New Haven has 9-10 people supporting their representatives. Why is Bridgeport so far behind? Time will tell.

    1. JML..thanks for
      getting back to me. The issues you raised are important. However,the political status quo will not address this question. It will require a huge change. Considering the poor turnout of BPT voters at all levels of elections,it is certainly dispiriting. So we need to continue to push and slough through. Time will really tell

  3. *** The city council has money in a legislative fund line item that can be used for hiring an independent firm to oversee the budget proceedings during budget season, give advice, aswell work along side of the B & A committee and give a final independent report on what type of improvements can be made and overall plus & minus report card on the entire city budget process from beginning to end. Its was done one year when Mr. Curwin & myself were co-chairs of the B & A committee. We thought that by starting that process & continuely improving the city budget’s process towards passing a transparent well balanced city budget, in time we would be able to get clear finance reports from city depts. every 6-months instead of once a year and sometimes not at all or sometime after the budget season had come & gone. The education dept. was good at that tactic while still always asking for more money every year! ***

  4. OIB Readers,
    I received a response to the comments to the City Council above from a Council person this morning and share with you my response. We need to keep sharing info, making fair comparisons on financial data spent, and make obvious changes from the status quo, in my opinion. Discussion and dialogue are an important part of the process. Thank you to the Council member who wrote to me. Hope to hear from them again. Time will tell.

    RESPONSE TO COUNCIL EMAIL:

    “Dear City Council member,
    Thank you for responding to my comments on Monday evening as well as sharing your own. I know that there are objections to BOE “consultants”, or those who are paid $500-800 per day that are in the Education budget. I . But when it is a lawyer getting justice for a family member who stands wrongly accused, an oncologist figuring out the best way to treat the cancer that has shown up, or any adviser with key info necessary, compensation in this range is not unusual these days. I am aware that good questions are being asked in BOE Finance committee and wish to make sure that similar, rigorous issues are raised in Council.

    The question is what value does it bring to the school system this year? How do we get to that level of open, accountable, transparent and honest?? On the BOE? On the City Council side? (For example I have been critical of the number of City Council members who use their stipend to attend meetings outside the City at an expense for travel, room, food, and registration for meetings of the same “$500-800 per day”? No report to the public. But good time memories at taxpayer expense instead of a learning experience shared with public on City website on how to improve fiscal oversight. I can show you the evidence of that for years in the stipend records. So there is evidence on both sides that indicates change may be in order. But the anecdotes should not be reason to forget the issue and continue the status quo. 
    I would be happy to sit down with you, answer questions you may have, point out directions to pursue in the balance of your City Council term so that your power is used efficiently. Please call me to arrange a mutually convenient time. John Marshall Lee 203-259-9642″
    Will this representative or others be in touch with me to continue learning about City fiscal practices and justice for taxpayers? Time will tell.

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