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City Financial Watchdog: Is Tail Wagging The Dog?

March 20th, 2014 · 8 Comments · City Budget, City Council

As city bean counters place the final touches on the spending plan that will be submitted to the City Council the first week of April, citizen budget watchdog John Marshall Lee provides a primer on the budget process in his Tuesday night address to the city’s budget-approval body. From General Lee:

Within two weeks Mayor Finch will attend to present his budget vision for the City in fiscal year 2014-15. As you well know this is an annual event where the City Council Budget and Appropriations Committee spends 20 or more sessions to review next year’s spending to operate the City. The Board of Education budget is framed by the BOE and sent to our Finance Office as a single final figure. They are responsible for oversight and monitoring and to be sure that revenues budgeted are received and expenses budgeted are held close to expected.

While this is also the time of year where the Capital Budget is due to be aired in public, with ideas solicited from the public according to the City Charter, it is the operating budget that I focus upon this evening. You received a June 2013 Final audited monthly report showing the revenues and sources and the expenses and line item categories. That is the first time that has occurred in 20 years and has an importance to you as you trace year-to-year trends.

The budget will show all City departments, goals and accomplishments, as well as necessary employees and resources. But for years it has not shown in a rigorous manner data to show that efficiencies have been achieved in each department. Management is not performing necessary evaluations and assessments or is not reporting on them if “good news” is the result. Why not? Often the Department reports contained in the budget document appear as a “cut and paste” exercise from previous budgets rather than a record of increasing efficiency and effectiveness that would justify operating budgets.

Many taxpayers see certain departments as top heavy with folks making six-figure salaries plus great benefits yet not accountable for any discernible results. If you hear that from your people, the Department heads present need to hear that from you. Shouldn’t the Department Head and/or the Chief Administrative Officer be preparing the numbers and supporting detail for your review? Why are City financial officers so frequently in the mix such that Department Heads appear not to have had a hand in preparing the material for your review? If the CAO is present and talks to improvements under his direction and budgets are trim, then the financial team will not be the tail wagging this dog. The Bridgeport dog is sick. This dog needs your care and attention. Does the CAO hold quarterly meetings with department managers to review dollars spent and services delivered? If not, why not, as that is what is done in other institutions. Consequences for good service as well as for inadequate services need to be understood by City employees and taxpayers. Real department performance is the goal.

Special attention to Line Item 51000 Full Time Compensation is necessary. During the past two years the City has managed to cut the total pay by an average of $4 million by September-October. Why not cut the ‘fat’ or the ‘ghosts’ out in May and lower the mil rate? Be on the lookout for categories that are not spending the current allocations. Two opportunities exist in your own Legislative budget: Stipends are being spent at a 50% rate and thus might be reduced by at least 1/3 or $60,000 without major harm. You also have a category called Other Expenses allocating $90,000 that is usually seen in June unexpended except for token amounts. Do a line item search for supportive contributions, association memberships, and such to see whether there is $100,000 or $500,000 that can be eliminated. Ask department heads what a 5% reduction would do to compromising their mission, and see what they say. You are the monitors, you are the watchdogs, and you get to attend and raise questions of each presenter. Help us who are limited in place, time and serious attention to make our voices heard.

Finally, take a look at revenue projections and check their reality against the past 2-3 years. And seek a responsible answer for the large deficit variances, totaling $8 Million last year alone from Police, Fire and Emergency Services. Perhaps it is time to change the Ordinances and the contractual sweetening that puts external overtime so far in excess of projections. And yet last year the City showed that contractors paying reimbursement to the City for those who work overtime had a 10% negative variance valued at $500,000 deficit.

You are the last line of defense, our only line in a City with no Internal Auditor, with no expert Finance group and without professional assistance and only four to five weeks to due your diligent Charter duty. Taxpayers await your work. Time will tell.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew C Fardy

    John, here is the list of the budget and appropriations committee.
    Council members: Brannelly, Marella, Martinez, Vizzo-Paniccia, Swain, Austin, Taylor-Moye.
    With this group the only hope for any meaningful questions will be Swain. The rest of this committee is bought and paid for by mayor Finch and will do as they are told.

    • Tom White

      When charter revision shifted the duties of a board of finance to the city council, the budget and appropriations committee was lead by an attorney with an accounting degree and a bank officer with an MBA. The city was under State oversight and the Financial Review Board lead by business leaders including the president of People’s Bank.

      Technology today allows the council members to monitor the budget individually and review the status at monthly meetings of the budget and appropriations committee.

      Are the city council members, especially the budget and appropriations committee prepared to review the budget? The last scheduled monthly meeting of the budget and appropriations committee was cancelled, presumably because council members were off on another taxpayer-funded junket.

      Twenty-five years after taking on the role of a finance board, the city council’s duty to oversee the city budget is now in the hands of a group lacking in relevant work experience and academic credentials.

      The council members will begin spending meaningless hours in budget review meetings, the content of which is carefully controlled. City staff can explain to them the sky is green and council members will spend the meeting discussing what shade of green.

      Will the city council members act to reduce expenses by eliminating unneeded positions or even entire departments? Not likely, since they are mostly Democratic town committee members, family members or operatives.

      Perhaps it is time to forgo the meaningless budget review meetings and simply approve the Mayor’s recommended budget with a few adjustments dictated by the adopted State budget, and avoid the wasted time and expense of the charade the city council conducts.

  • Andrew C Fardy

    John, here is something for people in this state to digest from Wallet. Connecticut is ranked 48th in the amount of taxes its residents pay each year. Is it any wonder people are leaving?
    We have a legislature that only knows how to raise money by taxing the ass off its residents and companies. We are the only state on the east coast with not a single toll. I am not saying bring back the tolling system we had in the ’60s but WHY NOT put tolls on our highways entering Connecticut? That would bring in millions of revenue. Please someone don’t tell me about losing federal highway money, that’s BS, just look at the tolls in NY and NJ. We get to pay all the maintenance on our roads with no help from those who use them. Where the hell are our legislators, things have got to change.
    I guess what I am trying to say is it’s budget time in Bridgeport and people really don’t care. The public doesn’t care because all they get to do is sit and listen to drivel and Sherwood tell the B&A he will get them the information they want later. So why should the public go where they are not wanted and are disrespected? The council is only there for window dressing and that’s it. Here is lesson one for you dumb asses. TANS stands for Tax Anticipation Notes, you should know this because you vote to borrow $110,000,000 every year. Do you know what the interest rate is on these short-term loans? See John, NO ONE CARES.

    • John Marshall Lee

      Actually, the City Council votes to “authorize $110 Million of TANS,” but the actual legal process and marketing is left with the Finance Department. And the “interest rate” that becomes a part of the short term, perhaps four-month time to repay, is a “market rate,” not specifically predictable at the time of City Council approval.

      It is not the expense of this annual dance that concerns me today as much as the fact the Mayor has pledged (in a Mayoral year past, as in “back in the day” with other fiscal pledges like $650 in every pot) to strengthen the City Fund Balance steadily so we have less reliance on the borrowing. Has not happened to any significant degree or we would have heard him commenting upon it, right? Time will tell.

  • Local Eyes

    I’m glad I grabbed the Connecticut Post today, here’s why: Andrew C. Fardy has a prominent letter to the editor on the Op-Ed page, bemoaning nonprofit groups in Bridgeport and John Marshall Lee was pictured twice–first with a group on the front page and then a large solo shot inside the paper. His awesomeness is gaining attention. There was even an article on the problems at Marin School where I volunteer. I go where the trouble is.
    But OIB is turning ACF and JML into local media superstars. Their political firepower is highlighted in today’s CT Post.

  • Jimfox

    John, how do we look from inside through the City’s internal audit function?
    When the City presents the Budget it includes “Accounting Policies,” titled Internal Controls. In the budget this section says, “In addition, the City of Bridgeport has an internal audit staff responsible for monitoring the various City departments in compliance with the City Charter, ordinances, and all other policies and procedures.” In which Department is this function handled in the City and by whom? What is your knowledge of any findings for the past several years to the Council as a whole or to any sub-committee?

    • John Marshall Lee

      There is a organizational chart in the CAFR that continues to show INTERNAL AUDIT as a “person” or a “process” or perhaps a “function” that occurs in the FINANCE area. But I have already been informed the budget process so described in the CAFR is not what the City does, nor is it exactly what the Charter tells them to do, but it is something they have included for years without challenge.

      Jim, I guess you need to challenge. And when you get a BS answer or no answer, keep challenging. There is no desire to inform the public it seems. So there are “no findings” reported on Internal Audit info I have seen provided to the Council or the public. Worse yet is there is no report to the public on the results of the “external audit.” The auditors, as part of their professional work, should be asked each year to participate in a community meeting to answer questions and Finance staff should be there too with the task of responding to questions. That is not routine in the City as you know. Twitter and tweet, tap your feet to the beat, let Finch and Nunn realize you are more than just one! Time will tell.

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