Lee To City Council: Follow The Money

What’s in the city budget and who’s getting paid? City fiscal watchdog John Marshall Lee provides a primer to City Council members where taxpayer money is spent–in case councilors are not paying attention–in his latest address to the budget and legislative body.

Money makes the world go around, and that is true for Bridgeport, too. However, the local resident pays less than half the current and bonded expenses for a number of reasons, and yet feels overtaxed and underserved while watching property taxes increase and residential and other property values decrease.

The operating budget for the City is around $525 Million including education, but when all State and Federal revenues are included the annual revenues spent on government for one year may exceed $670 Million. (There is no regular report provided by the City to show the revenues from all sources, or the employee positions in all programs or the trends from year to year as well as the variances within a year.)

The City has a Capital Budget as well that looks at the coming year plus four into the future. In 2013 the Mayor sought $29 Million in his cover letter though the charts showed only $26 Million for 22 projects in that year. In 2014 the Mayor proposed over $35 Million for 33 projects. The current year shows about $42 Million requested (though the requests shows ADOPTED) for 31 items, but the single page shows no history of recent-year decisions, completions, changes and sources of funds for the Capital Budget. There is no update available to taxpayers throughout the year even though the City Council is charged to “solicit ideas” on the subject from a broad range of persons and to hold an annual public hearing. Why is this not done?

Actual salaries are recorded in payroll records not otherwise available for review publicly. However, a summary of line item 51000 “FULL TIME EARNED PAY” is the closest to tracking actual earnings available to the public but confirmation from OPM or Finance would be suggested before making such assumption.

And benefits are paid on behalf of people in groups for insurance, retirement plans, and unemployment, Medicare and Social Security.

The City purchasing department has processes it follows with attention to the necessary integrity of their work. Here you will find a multitude of expenditures ranging from armored personnel carriers to coffee at Dunkin Donuts, from legal notice expenses to newspapers to catering by Tiago’s, from settlements of legal case claims to $8,000 per month payments to outside legal counsel, Ed Maley, from legal expenses for a variety of services to Pullman, Comley LLC running almost $500,000 annually to playground and park development expenses totaling $8.7 Million in the fall of 2014 from two out-of-state firms. (Look at the activity at Blackham School and consider what $1,250,000 may be producing. And look for similar activity at Marin, Puglio and Columbus locations that would be receiving the rest of $5,169,000 of funding contracted with the Cal Ripken Foundation.

Where were those plans reviewed, decisions made and ratified by City Council, and how many City jobs are funded even on a short-term basis? Most importantly what is the source of the money for these projects? Annual operating budget? Not seen in current Parks, Recreation, or other Department budgets! Capital approvals? Not seen in current or past two year adopted projects? All from grants to the City? Money of this kind would have caused a real splash and PR effort if funded by a grant. Therefore, unlikely. Bonding? But don’t projects like these need to get City Council approval?

What is the story when it seems difficult to explain all of the new things done in the City and tie the activities, the services and the “stuff” to how we are paying for them? Time will tell.



  1. John Marshall Lee, although a little long I think it is clear and easy to understand and gets directly to some serious issues that are not being addressed. I’m also sad to know local City unions have nothing to say about what’s going on.

    The late Fire Captain Donald DeCarlo who was the vice president of Fire Union Local 834 showed myself and the other members of the union executive members how to read and check the City’s budget and to compare it to past City budgets line by line and in the fire dept. then to check the other departments. This was done for us to make our case during contract time and if we had to go to state binding arbitration. Donnie was one of the best at this.

  2. Ron Mackey,
    Thank you for your comments on the essay for the City Council. I am happy someone credible was available to review the monthly financial report showing City revenue and appropriations including variances from budget at some time in the past.
    Eight pages are used in the most current monthly financial report to break line items into 15 sections. Unnecessarily complicated for anyone wondering whether the department is operating within budget. As a matter of fact, the manner in which overtime is recorded, and changed from year to year, makes a current determination of progress over the previous year impossible to determine from those 8 pages. If you were to look at it you would never hassle me again about the length of my articles, instead focusing on the Finance Department reporting meant to obfuscate the most serious overruns annually in overtime in the public safety budgets.

    Were you ever interested in meeting, coffee or no, I would be happy to have you as an ally in complaining about the way the City provides numbers. The Council members do not look at them seriously because they are too much for ready comprehension, and fail to provide a summary format that would make sense of the narratives, when provided. (For instance why would you be interested in a line item for $350, unrecorded in last year’s Fire budget as there was no revenue, and still has no revenue after seven months of the fiscal year. Yet the Finance Office still forecasts that the $350 projected will be met this year.)

    Give me a call when you are ready. The more people looking at the info, increases the odds that aberrant behavior may be identified even though the City makes basic info most difficult to access. Would you believe the Finance Office has not provided the June 2014 FINAL monthly report? Time will tell.

  3. JML, you wrote, “in a line item for $350, unrecorded in last year’s Fire budget as there was no revenue, and still has no revenue after seven months of the fiscal year. Yet the Finance Office still forecasts that the $350 projected will be met this year.” Have you written a letter directly to Chief Rooney for an answer? You should also request that same information from the fire commission. John, this lets them know there is somebody paying attention to the business of the fire department.

    1. Ron,
      I have written no letter to the Fire Chief or any department head regarding the monitoring of monthly data. They are busy people who will best represent the public if they keep their minds on their handful of management priorities and a new revenue item of $350 in a $57 Million annual budget is not a PRIORITY. The question remains why the City Finance department keeps providing info that is not being used fruitfully. To confuse the public, I suggest.

      What I am trying to communicate is the budget at 25% of its current size would be useful to the Council and to the public in focusing on fiscal trends, problems and issues in the operating budget and no one is monitoring that ground in a reliable and trustworthy manner. Why is that?

      I refer you to the subject we have addressed on OIB and to the Council on previous occasions:
      Save Trees, Mayor Receives Financial Reporting Suggestions
      August 19th, 2014 · 7 Comments · City Budget, City Council

      City fiscal observers John Marshall Lee and Phil Smith, in a letter to Mayor Bill Finch, offer suggestions for streamlining financial reports so “The Council and public can better see what is happening by reading notes and observing variances in a format that will allow them to monitor the report monthly as their Agenda declares. And trees can be saved.” Letter follows:

      The City has many problems as you know. Financial issues loom large in almost everything that crosses your desk. The Charter and Ordinances as well as other external or internal rules govern your financial life, yet they are not always followed. And the public simply does not get the word, which as taxpayers is their due.

      Let’s focus on the Charter-required monthly financial report. It runs 88 pages or more often. As you indicated in your 2014 address to the BRBC, you are “finding ways to cut government waste.” Target this report for immediate reform:

      • Eliminate ALL Public School budget info except for three or four lines that would include: Education (Lines 01800-01899), BOE Food Services (01900), BOE Transportation (01875), and perhaps Debt Service (01940) though this is paid by the City. BOE budget is available on Public Schools site. This saves 20 pages.

      • There are approximately 60 departments with personnel expense. Why not list each DEPARTMENT on one line, use the next five lines to summarize (1) Personal Services, (2) Other Personal Services (3) Fringe Benefits (4) Other Expenses and (5) Special Services? This is the format used in recent years with budget presentations. During the year Variances will be more easily spotted by everyone and necessary transfers (See City Charter Chapter 9 Section (5i)) can be attended to easily. This format can reduce 50 pages to 8 pages, eliminating particular confusion in Public Safety sections. Next to the Department title the number of current FTE as of that month can be reported as it does on the Public School site.

      • It is well to have a title page that indicates the month and year with a summary of where budgeted and actual revenue and expense are running and what surplus or deficit variance is happening. It is likely necessary to have revenue and expense variance commentary averaging 4 pages as a year progresses.

      • The Revenue reporting pages currently run around 8 pages and can remain as they are except for Line Item categories that have not been filled in recent years. Remove these lines as they only fill space. Likewise BOE revenues can be compressed to single lines, where the City contributions of all kinds can be clearly identified. City Grants Managers may be encouraged to produce regular reports of their fiscal efforts like the Public Schools.

      • And the simplified report should be made available monthly by the fourth Friday of the following month as called for in the Charter at the City Clerk’s office BUT ALSO ON THE FINANCE DEPARTMENT site. Perhaps a Grants report for the City similar to the Public Schools needs to be presented regularly as well. The full report similar to current format needs to be available on the Finance Department site so that line item details eliminated in the Summary (1-5) format can be viewed.

      In summary City fiscal reporting can be reduced to about 21 pages, a savings of printing and paper by 75%. The Council and public can better see what is happening by reading notes and observing variances in a format that will allow them to monitor the report monthly as their Agenda declares. And trees can be saved. Win, win, win would seem in order. Time will tell.

  4. Ron, it makes me proud and happy to read your comments about my cousin Don DeCarlo. I miss him for a lot of reasons, but especially the conversations we had about political matters. I always touched base with him when I pondered an issue or initiative that required my vote. I was also fortunate he was a constituent, as well as a relative.

  5. JML, you are one of a few who take the time to do the research into matters of the budget. I regret you and the few I allude to were not involved when I served on the City Council. I was fortunate to have council partners Stafstrom and Walsh who had strong financial backgrounds, and an impeccable understanding of the City budget. Although their expertise didn’t change or reverse all the shortcomings of the Council’s financial control and responsibility, they tried and were unfortunately trumped by lesser individuals. I urge all members of the Bridgeport Town Committee to take a hard look at the individuals they endorse for the City Council. Put friendships, emotions, and self-serving reasons aside. Vet your candidates, ask the correct questions, and if you don’t know them, find out what they should be. A responsible Council could change the course of the City. The opportunity to be responsible in your endorsement authority is around the corner.

    1. Amen, Lisa. 1. Are you a city employee or have a contract to do business with the city? 2. Are any of your family members including spouse, parents, children, siblings, in-laws and cousins city employees or have contracts with the city? (That would eliminate at least 10 current council people.) 3. Submit the first page of your current tax returns. (Proves where you claim to live.) 4. Do you have any lax liens on your property? (This would require tax records to be checked by a DTC member.)

      Who would in their right mind would want to serve on the city council with the current makeup–knowing you were going to have no voting bloc to really implement the checks and balances needed to represent the taxpayers of this city?

      Look for a group of hardworking dedicated citizens to examine the endorsed candidates and to get the word out next fall on any conflict these candidates might have. If any reasonable person can perceive there is a conflict, there is a conflict.

  6. Jennifer, as far as I’m concerned, the first two questions are no-brainers. Your last paragraph is also important. However, candidates for the City Council, four Board of Education seats, and City Sheriff positions will come before the DTC in July to seek endorsements. The due diligence you suggest must happen before that meeting. I’m only one of nine members representing the Democrats residing in the 132nd district. I will be open-minded and inclusive, I have faith the other members of the slate will do the same. If this doesn’t occur, I’ll go it alone. I’ve done that quite often in the past.

    1. Yes Lisa, I know the timeline–just getting the word out a citywide group is paying close attention. Some are members of the DTC and some are not, we cannot all participate in the endorsement process. We will participate in the election cycle to inform the public about candidates.


Leave a Reply