Citizen fiscal observer John Marshall Lee on Monday attended a financial presentation to the City Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee. He files this commentary:
Yesterday was a “red letter” day for the City of Bridgeport. The City stood up publicly on two occasions to talk about financial results. In the morning the Mayor announced a press conference for 3:30 PM that was attended by Brian Lockhart of the CT Post and Channel 12 TV. The “news” was that the City in the 2016-17 Fiscal Year had produced a surplus in the operating account; let’s call it, of $4.6 Million per Flatto on January 10 in audit letter.
Neither the Mayor at the session nor Ken Flatto later at the evening session of the Budget and Appropriation Committee focused on the exact amount with any forcefulness. Perhaps that was because Flatto puts out a report each month no later than the fourth Friday of the following month which provides historic ACTUAL reporting for a past year and current monthly, as well as projected to year end compared to adopted budget numbers. We should be able to trust all ACTUAL reporting as accurate!!!
The most recent report was for December 2017, halfway through the budget year and was released on January 25, 2018. For some reason it showed increased revenues for Actual 2017 and decreased expensesfor Actual 2017. When you subtracted the new numbers the City surplus showed a gain of $5.5 Million. How do ACTUAL results change?
In the evening session after you listened to the auditor summarily review the annual document and answer some questions as to the limitations of an annual audit with sampling procedures in use, Flatto acknowledged that some six months before he had noticed some anomalies in the numbers he was presenting. He guessed that they were in error and the errors compounded right to the December report. He will correct these errors and I believe him. But why when he saw what was happening did he not make a narrative comment that would show he is in command of the terrain? Perhaps, as he says, he does not have adequate staff, or perhaps it was because of a bout of ill health? But his narratives should anticipate CC questions.
Last night there were 14 Council members present to listen and ask questions. It appears that they are seeking formats that provide more information and are easy to read in several categories:
— Council members ought to be able to access a monthly report with all line items showing including expense columns for actual last year and year before–the executive level report provided currently has cut down on paper distribution–but does not allow study and comparisons of appropriation line items over multiple years.
— Two members, at least, have requested the reports in Excel, a form that the City can make available with little trouble or time spent.
— Several Council members are looking for reporting of monthly City employee Filled, Unfilled, New, and Vacant positioning. A chart was distributed annually during the Finch administration, but Ganim2 has chosen to keep this info close to his breast. How many people get a City job during a freeze? Look for a report? Good luck!
— Looking at the reporting of Police and Fire appropriations at budget formation and seeking similar data monthly is impossible at this moment. Since negative variances of overtime have caused issues every year in recent memory for either one or both public safety areas, why not agree on a way of reporting that provides necessary insight to our sole fiscal watchdogs?
— WPCA, Port Authority, and OPED bond issue irregularity questions were asked of the auditors with no new light shed.
— Questions on Lighthouse and other funds handled by the City but not specifically featured in any monthly reporting or CAFR highlights were also raised.
— Flatto referred to the legal settlement of Wheelabrator tax case using tax credits annually of $2 Million or more for (?) years into the future … this can was kicked down the road without the public knowing the “present value cost” of such a decision.
It was a reasonable session for the new Council to learn what each member seeks and how willing is the City to provide access to data requested. Let’s see how many of the fiscal watchdogs can get what they require to provide some real check and balance activity for taxpayers. Time will tell.