Love him or not, perhaps somewhere in the middle, citizen fiscal watchdog John Marshall Lee, also a petitioning candidate for City Council, keeps on barking in the cause of members of the budget and legislative body eating OATs–open, accountable and transparent–splashed with fiscal fluency. He shares his latest commentary after attending the latest Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting.
How far or long can you drive your automobile without referencing one or more sensors and displays on your dashboard? Which dial or light gets first attention from you as you glance down from the road? Speedometer? Fuel? Oil pressure? Odometer? Radio?
Where is City fiscal dashboard instrumentation to assist the elected and the public? Do Council members ‘fly blind’ when they meet as the Budget & Appropriation Committee (B&A)? Just consider …
Tuesday evening 6:00 PM B&A Co-Chair Mike Marella and the recording secretary waited patiently with City managers including Sherwood, Kelly-Lenz and also from School Building for a quorum to form of the seven person group. Council member Salter, not a B&A member, was joined by Swain, Jackson and Vizzo-Paniccia during the next half hour. Some were leaving as the Chair considered his options. At 6:33 PM Taylor-Moye entered from another Council activity and made a quorum allowing the meeting to proceed at 6:34PM with a ‘call to order.’ (Councilman Salter and CFO Kelly-Lenz had departed the room by then.) Absent were Co-Chair Brannelly, L. Martinez, and Austin all of whom are stepping down this year along with Marella and Swain.
Minutes of the August and September meetings were approved without discussion. The subject of the General Budget Review was raised. The July monthly report had been available since August 26 but the August report due September 26 had not been yet produced. Why not? Council members questioned this but Sherwood indicated that this was a matter for Finance Department and not him. He shared the year end process of keeping books open for adjustments for 60 days before turning them over to the auditors. But he said that variances in this period were not reported. One member asked about comparing July 2014 to July 2015 items, but he had no answer other than to refer to Finance.
Before they left the Budget Review ‘moment’ where no questions or comments were made regarding the substance of the July report, I raised my hand to be recognized. I was observed by one member but was told by Chair Marella that the public had no right to speak. I respectfully countered that City Council rules allow the Chair discretion to open the floor. He asked fellow members their sense and Council person Swain indicated that she was always happy to listen to the public. Marella defended his decision to not allow a question because ‘the public gets aroused and causes an event and police must be called too often.’ Gee, I only wanted to ask whether the City was having a tax collection problem. The July report indicated that only 37% of projected taxes had been paid in July. With no actual data in this report for previous years and similar periods it is difficult to know whether this is usual or not.
The substance of the meeting dealt with bonding authorization for repairs to Thomas Hooker School roofing. B&A must approve before going to CC for approval. If that were not completed last night it could not be decided upon by CC in time for a State deadline in October. It would be held over until next year. Project timelines and fund availability for this deferred project were Council concerns. Sherwood said some soothing, almost magic words indicating that he knows of residual funds from other projects that can be applied. Nice that Sherwood knows about such, but why are Council members and taxpayers not in the know as well? Can we be trusted with this info? Meeting adjourned at 6:48 PM.
The City Council gets no dashboard info on Capital projects after approval nor does the public on the City website or from the City Clerk office. We all wait for late reports with partial info, sometimes in error, that fail to show previous ‘actual’ info and that are too lengthy and crowded with data that the CC never deals with. Variances that are critical in seeing where money has been appropriated, yet not spent, are not open to viewers automatically. Above criticisms relate to the Operating Budget only. Where is current and historic activity data on the Capital Budget? Balances in accounts? Timelines for project completion? Where can taxpayers see the extent of City grants, the priorities for projects funded, and the number of employees so engaged? Nowhere!!! When funds are available to the Office of Policy Management, unknown to elected taxpayer representatives on the Council, will you guess that taxes have been budgeted too high? Want a peek at the dashboard? Time will tell.
PS. Less than 24 hours later the hard copy and electronic August report became available.
What a surprise? It is less than 25 pages (contrast to 80-90 usual) due to a format revision including limiting all expense reporting to 6 major line item categories and a compaction of the Police, Fire and BOE interdepartmental listings. Columns increased from 10 to 14 from July to August although variance continues unused. Give credit to Finance for taking some action on making the report more user-friendly. These are GREEN suggestions that I have made multiple times during the year to the Council and supportive of BGreen20/20. Are we coming up to speed? Time will tell.