City fiscal watchdog John Marshall Lee addressed the City Council Tuesday night, encouraging the city’s legislative and fiscal body to be more assertive in the city’s budgetary process. His commentary follows:
Two weeks ago I talked about the June 2013 monthly financial report issued to you in January 2014, based on audited results for the 2013 fiscal year. I called it historic because for the first time in over 20 years the City had provided a 12-month record of the Operating Budget to the taxpaying public. Of course the Charter states that this is what is in order, but annual compliance had been avoided for one reason or another. It showed a surplus of less than $200,000 in the operating budget of a little more than $511 Million including basic Education budget, but almost $145 Million more than this was actually spent because of Operating Grants and contributions to the City and for Education. These were not budgeted by you, and not reviewed by you in any regular way. Is this what serious watchdogs would allow to happen? $145 Million is a lot of money.
I mentioned the revenue surplus of $500,000 in the CASH ACCOUNT of the Controllers department and asked where it originated. Half a Million dollars is ten times the budget estimate. Has anyone discovered how it came to be? After all, it would seem enough to pay off much of the expense of the Stratford Airport access way construction, legal expense, etc. Just think if it were to become an annual event, it would be most welcome wouldn’t it? In six weeks when you begin to review the proposed 2014-15 budget you will be looking for revenue sources. Ask the question, please? Will you also share the answer with the public?
You received the CAFR for the 2013 year about one month ago. There is much good info in the document. On page 32 City budgetary procedures are outlined relative to the General Fund Budget. You might want to consult your copy.
• It says that you should expect both the Operating Budget and the Capital budgets no later than 120 days before July 1. (Last year the budget was released on April 2 if memory serves me. Is that an example of City actual process missing expectations or being in violation of the Charter?)
• The Mayor shall submit to you with the proposed budgets, a certificate that the budget is consistent with a three-year financial plan, and which states that operating within the budget is feasible. (I do not remember any mention or reference to this certificate, nor do I remember comments or discussions about a three year plan, do any of you? And what is a standard of feasibility when CAFRs for the past three years have reported that public safety employees have overexpended budgets for the past three years? Last year Police, Fire and Emergency Operation budgets showed deficits totaling $8 Million and that is after significant provision for various types of Overtime allowances. Are you monitoring this closely? What is the deficit variance in those departments through six or seven months this year? Or are you counting on Chief Nardozzi to do OT work singlehanded? And who works with Fire? And what causes such large excess overtime in the Fire Department? Do you know?
• The CAFR then states: “Expenditures may not legally exceed appropriations at the department level.” What does that mean when Public Safety employees are still exceeding the appropriated amounts? Will you ask for an explanation?
• On Page 34 is a statement about Special Revenue Funds. “The City does not have legally adopted annual budgets for its special revenue funds. Budgets for the Special Revenue funds that are utilized to account for specific grant programs are established in accordance with the requirements of the grantor agencies. Such budgets are not lapsing and may comprise more than one fiscal year.” OK are we talking about funds for Capital projects where the Council gets to vote once and is never consulted again with progress and fund balances? Are we talking about $40 Million of purchases spent by the City last year that are not in the budget you prepare but which you may authorize one evening with little or no backup material and then never see or hear about again? Do you want to continue this charade and pretend that you are seriously providing oversight to taxpayer funds and City expenditure of same? Are you happy with rubber stamp legislation?
I believe the tide is turning in Bridgeport. More people are asking questions and expecting common sense answers and specific information. You need to slow down your approvals when the info is inadequate. Times are changing in Bridgeport. The fiscal cupboard is bare. Postponing a mandated revaluation is a sign of political weakness. The reval was ordered by the City, completed by the appraiser and paid for according to the budget. Yet most of us have not seen the news. Why not? Will we see our own values?
It will be the immediate task of the next Mayor after the election in 2015 to deal with the secrecy of the current administration. Will you be part of reform now or not? Ask questions? Seek answers. I am available to assist your learning although your rules limit my face time with you to five minutes at City Council meetings. Change your rules and let the public observe your work with commentary in all Committee meetings. Time will tell.