General Lee Urges Watchdogs To View Financial Lens

One month away from Mayor Bill Finch submitting his budget proposal to the City Council, city financial guardian John Marshall Lee implored the city’s budget authority to focus on the financials. His Monday address to the council:

Council President McCarthy, Council persons, interested member of the Bridgeport community. For the past two Council sessions I have addressed financial issues raised by the release of the June 30, 2013 Monthly Financial Report.

I have told you that this was a historically significant report because the Finance Office has failed to provide you with such for over 20 years. The Charter says 12 months of monthly reports but the City has not been doing that. In 2012 they posted a report for the 12th month and termed it a DRAFT, never issuing a final report. I believe that the Finance Office felt that you were not asking for such a document. And indeed, if none of your predecessors including the incumbent members of Budget & Appropriations asked for it, then they did not get one.

This year one of your members asked for the Final Report and you received it. Did you bother to read it? Have you heard any of the questions I have asked you during the past two sessions? I send you my comments by email after addressing you. I know you are busy, but the people who voted for you expect that you are the last watchdogs in the City. Are they wrong? When you are asked a question and know the answer, do you share that answer?

For instance I shared with you the surprise of discovering an entry in Controller’s Department of $510,000 between the June draft and the June final for a line item that expected $50,000 for the year and had no positive revenue indicated right up to the June draft. Is that magic? I hope it is a good number, but who has asked for an explanation? What is the answer? If I am looking at these numbers and have questions, do you think I am the only one in the City looking to you to handle this responsibility? Can this entry for Line Item 41538 repeat again this year? Or is it a one-time event? Or is it possibly an error? Errors occur in City fiscal reports you know and watchdogs need to review the material to catch them … (Were you to reference this year’s CAFR, the external audit prepared by Blum Schapiro and the Finance Office, you can find errors on page 60 and again on page 81 that should have been spotted by cursory proofreading. The first has to do with Firefighters Retirement Plan B, Column four where the same number repeats five years in a row. The second on page 81 where the data under 2010 has slipped a space. Do these errors affect the totals? Check them out. After all the Mayor and Chief Finance officer are pleased with the report getting a Transparency reward. Are there more serious errors included? How would you tell if you do not read, if you don’t question, if ALL FISCAL REPORTS were put on the internet, just as you get them. That would be real transparency. And if the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report is not the subject of an annual public hearing with Q & A where all can listen and learn, why not?

Regarding Open practice, your Council rules prevent your committees from getting input at their meetings from the public. Are you pleased with that or proud of that? There are people in the community who can assist in helping the City strengthen its financial position, but you are not open to them. Why not? Is it because you believe you know everything, those of you who have sat on this body for years? It takes a community (if not a village) to share in the information, understanding and discussion that leads to wise long-term fiscal results. That has not been the City habit unfortunately.

Staying on the Revenue side of the June report is the surplus in 44691 Line Item of $2,333,181. In the previous year we had received $3.6 Million for Manufacturing Machinery and Equipment but when the 2013 budget was put together that was not to be. However, the City did receive it and managed to spend all of it when it might have been used to reflect a significant surplus along with the $500,000.

In 2013 the City did manage to run $8 Million of deficits for public safety employees. What is that number for the current year? Does anybody have that number handy? Lastly, in 2013 there was no budget for Attrition. Can you explain Attrition (it’s found under Organization Code 01610, Line Item 50700) but now it is showing in your current budget to the tune of $2 Million. Can you explain what it is? Why is this number not changing through the year? What is happening to the furloughs and other employment adjustments each month and are the results showing in the reports presented to you?

One month from now you will begin your budget review for 2015. Will you handle this task the way it has been handled in recent years with staffing patterns that have allowed the City to shed $3.5 to $4 Millions of salary after one quarter? Taxpayers are looking at you. If you need help, independent assistance, get it on board quickly. Time will tell.

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13 comments

  1. John, an excellent analysis. The trouble is Bill Finch has no clue as to what you are writing. This city is, and has been for over 40 years, virtually bankrupt. They borrow from Peter to pay Paul. They squander revenues by creating problems (e.g. the Moutinho driveway). They don’t know how to generate positive revenues. Their planning and development people have no clue how to bring in business. And the list of those who work for the city via cronyism and nepotism is a tome that could be used by corrupt cities like Chicago on how to do business.

    1. Bob, let me ask you a question, you said, “The trouble is Bill Finch has no clue what you are writing,” does anyone elected understand what JML wrote? Do you really think anyone will respond to someone telling them what they don’t do and what they don’t know?

      1. Ron,
        I am concerned you do not understand what I have written. For better or worse I have read your postings for some time and believe you have an above-average City resident understanding of City business. So I am concerned if you tell me you are not grasping one or more of the points I made in addressing the City Council.

        If it is the tone of my comments that sets you off, then you really need to come around to the meetings (or perhaps you look at the cable broadcasts). Isn’t it fair to call Charter violations to the attention of our elected representatives? Is it fair to point out to them specific errors, mistakes, and/or information that is part of a City manager or department responsibility for attention? And Ron, I know and you know they have not been attending to financial oversight in a meaningful way for years. So in five-minute slices of public speaking I try to highlight items or subjects that may trigger attention.
        How would you suggest the presentation of such problems, issues or concerns? I am always open to find a more effective way to communicate the subject matter. Can you help me?
        There are people who have been elected as well as appointed who understand what I have been saying. One example is monthly financial reports are coming monthly! As recently as two years ago, reports were issued only three times during the year. Also, I focused on the June monthly report as critical and CFO Kelly-Lenz provided a DRAFT report for June 2012 (no one asked her to issue an audited FINAL report apparently) and for June 2013 (when someone asked for an audited FINAL) it was issued.
        The last page of that report shows a SURPLUS of $900,000 for 59500 Supportive Contributions that is most curious, as it was not in the original City budget. I will provide a hint to look in the CAFR for a similar number showing as BOE variance. Please let me know what you think this means. Time will tell.

        1. John Marshall Lee, let me ask you this, do you want the City Council to respect and listen to you and take what you said seriously or do you want to show them they don’t know what they are doing and you are the smartest person in the room?

          1. Ron,
            I asked you in the post above how I might more effectively communicate. I obviously want them to listen to the message and seek answers for the taxpaying public. If they discover they are unaware of what I discuss, I think my words offer assistance and are respectful of the trust they hold on behalf of the public that elected them.
            I obviously am not the “smartest person in the room” (because I continue to pay taxes to a governance structure that does not mind the fiscal store well and because of that hides the workings as much as possible), although you like to toss that statement at me for some reason. When I meet someone who does know more about a topic than I do, I ask questions, look for sources from them and attempt to build a relationship so I may check back with them. I also have apologized for incorrect statements when I am presented with facts and evidence I have got it wrong. Much better to be right than stay wrong even if there is a little discomfort in having to change.
            If you are a homeowner or a car owner, you pay City property taxes. Aren’t you the least bit curious about the issues I raise? What is it about me that has you stuck in a rut, neither willing to call me for a conversation or meet me for the same, and also unwilling to answer any of the questions I ask? Where is your respect for the effort I expend on behalf of all City taxpayers? And where are your coaching comments if you truly are interested in assisting me?
            I am aware of at least one City Council member who would appreciate my absence from future City meetings. This person knows what (s)he knows and wants to shut any other commentary down. If you are talking to this person, I understand your attitude and comments when you post a response. Fortunately, some more recent Council persons are interested because City finances are the common topic that binds so many “hot topics” together. The new folks do not want to be soiled by inattention to the errors and the details. Listen to them. Watch them. Time will tell.

  2. There is one thing I don’t think the taxpayer knows and that is the individual department budgets are not made up by the department heads, they are created and submitted by Tom Sherwood. I remember one meeting where the department head asked the B & A committee where the numbers came from. This is still going on. I hope the new members of the B & A ask questions, we know the returning members won’t.

  3. In response to Ron Mackey.

    Ron, much of what John Lee is detailing is beyond the understanding of most people. I believe John realizes this. He was directing his comments to the city council members who should understand what he is bringing to their attention. What we should all be tuned into is John’s concern that city council members are not consistently exercising their duties of budget oversight. Worse yet, they apparently do not understand their duties nor care to.

  4. Maybe another strategy could work. Instead of asking almost rhetorical questions to the entire Council and having no answers from anyone, start to divide them by focusing on one Council member, and asking directly how he or she has responded. Maybe doing this, and at the same time, thanking another for cooperating with your questions, you may start to turn them against each other. They won’t back each other, and will probably be relieved you’re hammering one member and not them. This could be good!

    1. BARF, thank you but another way is to find a member who will listen. I’ve asked council members why they don’t follow JML’s advice and a number of them told me if he knows so much then why doesn’t he run for office like they did. Another said JML knows nothing about his district and the voters put him into office. One member questioned me and asked me if I would sit there week after week and let someone talk down to you. Knowing everything is no good if you cannot “use” what you know and to have others follow. If I respect someone even if I don’t like them I will listen to them.

      1. Ron,
        When you were in school or in the military or in any type of fire training, did you feel the person speaking was speaking down to you just because you happened to know less about a subject?
        Seven years ago I was a simple taxpayer who had asked no questions about finances in the City, just paid my taxes. However, I participated with some neighbors and raised property valuation questions … and learned a lot about Planning and Zoning and Zoning Board of Appeals and Revaluation process and more. That led me into looking at Financial info about the City, attending meetings that are public and asking questions and finding a number of Council persons do not wish to answer questions privately or publicly. I also discovered they do not understand or appreciate their job, partly because their “duties” are not spelled out in the Charter or any other document. And when internal audit is dead and when the CAFR reports a budgetary process that is FALSE and not in accord with the Charter, and when there is no practical monitoring of the budget monthly, and when there are “errors” in the Monthly Financial Reports and the CAFR 2013 … and no one is concerned … who wishes to hear that? And so I put my comments out to each Council person by email … and I submit to OIB so all of you can read and respond … and readers like you admit to talking with Council persons but do not ask the hard questions … what are we left with? And your answer to me is I should run for office? I have been asked to do that and have declined because it would compromise my time and my objectivity, likely.
        Council persons have a responsibility beyond their district, Ron. Do they understand that? Sikorsky Airport or funding the schools cross all district boundaries, and so do money issues. I am not surprised you continuously duck discussion with me. And now you have revealed what your discussions with some members are about.
        Did you ever think my comments are so accurate and embarrassing to longer-term members, they will say and do anything they can to shut me out and keep me quiet? Basic response to news that is disturbing, isn’t it? And where do you find in my writing, frequent as it is, any disrespect for you or for anyone else as people? Let’s talk about the City of Bridgeport. How is money from City property owners abused and by whom when they fail to follow City Charter, Council ordinances, high ethical considerations and efficient and effective governance? Time will tell.

  5. Ron, these are excuses these council people use. Being elected to office doesn’t give a person a free pass when they feel like taking it.
    John and I have gone to numerous budget hearings for the last three years and have watched the same people make the same mistakes over and over again. We have watched the same people being led around by Tom Sherwood.
    Btw Ron, you don’t have to run for office to care about your city, you just have to take the time to uncover what’s hidden in the budgets. People, myself included, don’t like to have their shortcomings pointed out. The smart ones learn and the dumb ones continue on in a fog.

  6. *** Gen. Lee rides day and night on his faithful horse “CITY COUNCIL!” Arrives, gets off his horse, heads to the city government cantina to give his usual financial speech and wet his whistle at the city water cooler that’s not working for some reason. Afterward decides his horse “CITY COUNCIL” should be somewhat rested and cooled down by now and ready for a drink of water! So Gen. Lee goes outside and leads his horse to water but the horse won’t drink, regardless of whatever Gen. Lee says to the horse! ***

    1. Mojo,
      You have a longer learning curve than I do, and you are generally unconflicted as you tell the story the way you see it. And some of your story lines are just plain fun, NO?

      Many members of the City Council are away, eating, drinking, residing for a couple days at taxpayer expense in hotel rooms that cost more than $250 per night. What meetings will they attend and will any of it have practical import to what they believe are their duties? If they gave any thought to it, wouldn’t they inform those who are in their district? Or if the issue is broader, affecting the entire City, wouldn’t they issue a press release? But they keep their information, their fun and their expenses from the public eye, don’t they? Do you suspect it is more about ‘fun and games’ or personal agendas, like being on organizational committees that meet once or twice per year, than about assisting citizen taxpayers with information or services? Time will tell.

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