Saturday, September 22, 2007

Budgets 101: An Introduction to the Public Purse

Today was a good day. My alma mater won over Georgia Tech and I door-belled about 150 homes in my neighborhood for Dan Pike and Stan Snapp.
At my age, I need physical exercise and I got some walking up and down the hill in my neighborhood [Puget].
The weather cooperated too.
It wasn't exactly hiking Ptarmigan Ridge, but maybe I'll do that tomorrow.
Now Budgets 101.
Boring, but essential.
Especially if you believe its necessary to pay attention to such things.

The City Council has two major duties;
Pass legislation and approve the City budget.

That's it. Anything else is window dressing.

I'll bet some folks didn't know that.
They may think Council members exist mainly to handle complaints, grant wishes, and generally make the Mayor do what the populace [like that word?] wants.
Wrong, but only just.

Of course, there are other important role that Councilors [like that term?] can play!
And, we do.
Some members more than others.

Back to Budget matters.

In 2004, I was honored with the role of Council President.
Little did I know what that might entail!

One thing it entailed was enduring the 'will of Council', the four votes that can take you to places you don't want to go!

With that in mind, here is an article the erstwhile Herald reported on 11/24/2004:
Tight budget splits City Council 

John Stark, The Bellingham Herald

The city of Bellingham is facing a year-end showdown over its 2005 budget as Mayor Mark Asmundson and the City Council debate the best ways to cut costs even as they raise property taxes.

On Tuesday, in a series of straw votes during a contentious three-hour meeting, four council members - Terry Bornemann, Louise Bjornson, Gene Knutson and Barbara Ryan - approved a series of major budget changes that caught both Asmundson and Council President John Watts off guard:

• After a strenuous public campaign by firefighters, the four nixed a plan that would have eliminated one fire engine while adding one emergency medical services unit. That shift would have left the city with six engines and three ambulances while saving $100,000 a year.

• The four also indicated support for placing an emergency medical services levy before voters one more time, probably in the spring. Such a property tax measure failed in a countywide vote in 2003 and in a citywide vote Nov. 2.

• In a departure from decades of budget policy, the four approved a shift in the allocation of city sales tax money, moving about $320,000 out of the $20 million street fund and into the general fund.

• The four also approved cutting $30,000 in hotel and motel tax funding from the Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and $50,000 from the Bellingham Whatcom Convention and Visitors Bureau, shifting those sums to the Whatcom Museum of History & Art. The strain of having to choose from a menu of unpopular alternatives appears to be leading to bitterness. A council once accused of being a seven-vote rubber stamp for the mayor is now at odds with him over budget policy, and the council itself is split 4-3 on taxation and spending issues.

"I was as mad last night as I have ever been on the council," Watts said Wednesday.

Asmundson said he and city department heads had done a lot of work presenting council members with a list containing more than $2 million in possible budget cuts for them to consider. He questioned the wisdom of the alternative cuts that the four council members came up with.

Besides saving money, the fire department shift would be a more sensible use of resources, since fires now number in the hundreds while emergency medical services are dispatched thousands of times each year, Asmundson said.

The street fund is already below the level needed to adequately maintain existing streets and build new ones, Asmundson said.

And the cuts to the chamber and visitors' bureau mean less money for tourism promotion, which pays off in tax revenue and other economic benefits to the city, Asmundson said.

Watts agreed. He said he joined Bjornson, Ryan and Bornemann in voting for a property tax increase two weeks ago because he thought other council members would join him in making more spending cuts before the budget process was done.

By shifting money instead of making cuts, the city will face an even bigger budget problem next year, Watts said.

"This will be four years in a row of temporizing measures, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," Watts said. "We have created what could be the mother of all train wrecks next year. ... Everybody wants to keep the services, but the connection has not been made that to keep the services we need to find more funding."

If the council passes a budget ordinance at its next meeting Dec. 6 by a 4-3 margin, Asmundson could block it with a veto that would require five votes to override.

After Tuesday's three-and-a-half-hour budget session, Watts said he told Asmundson, "If you've got one grain of guts and common sense, you'll use your veto power."

Asmundson said he was studying the situation and it was premature to talk about a veto.

Council member Bornemann blamed the mayor for his preliminary budget that assumed the city would have $1.6 million from the emergency medical services levy. Failure of the levy late in the budget process left council members scrambling for solutions, Bornemann said.

Bornemann also portrayed that vote as justifying his support of keeping fire department staffing at its current configuration, with two EMS units. If voters wanted more, they could have voted for the levy, he said.

But he also expressed hope that the current budget situation will help an EMS levy get voter approval on the third try.

"If it doesn't pass, then the engine company will be gone," Bornemann said. "There won't be any way out of it for the following year."
You know what? I'm still mad about that summarily arrogant action!

The apparatus in question had not moved in a 'time-critical' situation since 1991!
Yet, $100 k was allocated to it's full staffing!
Are you kidding me?

Welcome to Budgets 101!

All, 'sins of the past aside', budget time is serious time.
It is the time that Departments put their needs in writing.
It is the time that Council goals get incorporated into the City budget.
It is the time that the public needs to pay attention!
Now, take a deep breath and pay attention.

The City of Bellingham has earned national recognition for three Important things related to taking care of the public purse:

Clean audits from the State of Washington for eight years, starting in 2000.

Recognition as a Municipality that presents its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report [CAFR] in an understandable fashion.

Recognition as a Municipality that presents its budget clearly and understandably.

Thanks are due for these achievements to Therese Holm, City Finance Director.

Bet you didn't know that, did you?
Now, what about next year?

The City MUST approve a budget that is in balance - by State law.

And, Council must approve the next year's budget by this year's end.

That is the process that is now in progress. The Council now intends to adopt a budget for 2008 on 11/26/2007, the day before our next elected Mayor takes office.

That may be enough for now.
Let's talk again tomorrow.