Citizen fiscal watchdog John Marshall Lee addressed the City Council Monday night raising questions about the benefits of a state authorized financial review board for the city.
Last week your Budget and Appropriations Committee listened to Ben Barnes from the State share information about the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) program available to eligible cities and towns. A number of criteria can be used to establish eligibility but Barnes felt that our bonding frequency, credit rating and other City statistics including the City “fund balance” provided qualifying evidence. Our “fund balance” rests at the lower end of a yardstick measuring “unrestricted and unreserved” cash relative to 2-8% of the City annual operating budget.
MARB offers review, advice and perhaps financial assistance if you qualify as Tier 3, present your need and how you plan to deal with it. Bridgeport, in major ways, has increased its responsibilities to current workers for their futures when working years are behind them. It is a root of the retirement plan funding difficulties and Other Post Employment healthcare liabilities that stand in excess of One Billion Dollars. Funding pensions and bond costs crowd out our ability to responsibly fund school for our young where almost 40% are either English language learners or designated as “special education” students. Each category bears extra expense in order to provide a closer experience to “fair and equal” treatment enjoyed in other systems. Obviously we cannot succeed, working in the same manner of recent years.
When Mayor Ganim came into office he referenced the difficult operating deficit he faced. But he dealt with it in several ways by himself. He never raised one or more situations where illegal or inappropriate activity likely happened. Therefore there were NO CONSEQUENCES and no community learning about what to look out for, was there? Shameful?
He raised taxes very significantly, property values reduced and the community responded. Some offered advice, alternatives, ongoing consulting on City management and especially fiscal problems. State Rep Stafstrom helped some of his constituents reach out to the Mayor but Ganim deigned to do nothing like sitting down, forming an “advisory group” and listen to some folks who had life experience and were willing to help. In certain campaign materials the Mayor is quick to suggest that there is nothing more that he enjoys doing than sitting down with a group of fellow citizens and listen to their comments about the community. But does he do this?
Look at the record of our “second-chance Mayor.” In what District has he sat down with folks to listen and chew the fat?? In other towns around the State, politically active citizens and taxpayers have had a better chance of a one-time sit down with the Mayor, campaigning for Governor, than has a Bridgeport resident. Honest and true?
So MARB might be a way that Bridgeport may avail itself of some expert and balanced commentary from a Board that sees both best and worst practices from around the State. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have someone else asking questions and supplying answers across a broader video screen? Might the questions from the MARB group help our Finance Department and OPM look at our own statistics, such as they are, and help us get better where we can? What is a downside to filing a request? Is there a downside to learning how to make better informed decisions? Expenses reported do not seem great relative to the potential relief offered.
Were we to have a Charter Review Commission appointed once again, the subject of having a fiscal review group inserted between the Mayor’s administrative team and the legislative body would likely rise again. Many surrounding communities with better credit ratings and lower mil rates have such groups. In the meantime, your Legislative budget allows room to spend throughout the year a part of your budget for financial services that can begin to produce a picture of where dollars are being raised, and spent; what is bonded that might be treated less expensively and alternatively; and how to include your constituents in your Council fiscal process more effectively than is your current effort … and that would be earlier when the taxpayer voices can be heard by you. Time will tell.