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.