Yesterday's headline read:
"Whatcom County faces $5 million reserve shortfall, layoffs possible"
On Tuesday, April 28, County Council members learned to their surprise and consternation that Whatcom County suddenly faces a $5 million budget gap by the end of this year, and that layoffs might be unavoidable.
Deputy Administrator Dewey Desler had a number of quotable quotes to offer, none of which began to explain why this information is only being made public now, 4 months into the year.
"We have to get control of this,"
"While (the budget problems are) not as large as other counties', it still is something that is very real for us."
"We're not interested in doing something that's hasty."
"We're not interested in doing something that's not well thought out."
"...the gap is large"
"...the cuts that might be recommended will probably be "shared pain" across departments."
"Can we avoid pink slips? That's what our objective has been all along,"
"I can't say for sure. First blush, yeah there may need to be (layoffs). I don't want to sugarcoat it."
Gee thanks, Deppity Dawg! Did Pete dictate these for you?
Recently, the county's reserves were estimated to be about $10.7 million at the end of 2009, but now, the new projections show the county will have just $5.7 million left over .
That's a pretty major difference from the $23.5 million reserve the county had just a few years ago, when County Executive Pete Kremen proposed - and County Council members approved - spending about half of that money on various one-time projects.
The County has already revised budget reserve projections after the 2008 ending reserve came in about $1 million less than the initially projected at $12 million.
Since then, fee and tax revenues have dropped further below 2009 and 2010 budget projections.
Now, year-end revenue is expected to be about $3.7 million less.
Additional Council member comments & concerns:
Carl Weimer: "I'm kind of surprised that we're a third of the way through the year and we're just hearing about this now,"
"And we'll be halfway through the year before recommendations come to council so we can start tweaking this.
You haven't partnered with the council yet."
Various: Concerns about the way the government spends money, particularly in how to save employees from being laid off while addressing various policy directives the council has issued.
Sam Crawford: ...there needs to be discussion about long-term planning initiatives; the county shouldn't raise planning department fees to try to make up some of the costs.
Laurie Caskey-Schreiber: the council shouldn't ignore fee issues and that there should be discussion about whether the county's fees are equitable to that of other counties; concerned about layoffs and suggested furloughs for employees or asking bargaining units to forgo pay raises to help with the budget.
How can it be that a County that has refused to raise property taxes the last 14 years, refuses to utilize impact fees, and yet is subject to the same financial pressures than impact everyone, 'discovers' a huge deficit 4 months into the year?
I thought Teflon Pete was immune to this stuff, didn't you?
But, I don't know any municipality that hasn't been seriously hurt by this recession, and surprised by the depth of it despite best efforts at forecasting revenues.
Certainly Bellingham isn't immune to this precipitous revenue drop, despite its excellence at timely and [relatively] understandable financial reporting.
No one can blame the County for the depth of this recession, but it could do much better at reporting revenue forecasts and their likely impacts.
For example, I don't recall the County emphasizing regular financial reporting at public meetings, which is something both the Council and citizens have the right to expect.
The City used to have a similar problem with the way its periodic financial reports and budgets were presented, and Lord knows, they aren't the simplest things to understand!
Then, in 2000, the City's new Finance Director, Therese Holm, changed things for the better - I hope permanently.
Essentially, every year since 2000, the City has received the Government Financial Officers Association [GFOA] award for excellence in its financial reporting [monthly, quarterly, annually (CAFR)], a standard of performance that only a relatively small percentage of municipalities receive.
Additionally, during the last several years the City has also received the GFOA's award for excellence in budget preparation and presentation.
Even made clearer and simpler, municipal budgets aren't easily understood either. They have similarities with other types of budgets, but also many differences that are legal requirements.
Point is, citizens deserve the best level of clarity, timeliness and accuracy that can be reasonably provided.
And, the GFOA awards amount to the gold standard for municipalities.
For starters, Whatcom County ought to aim for this level of excellence -and openness.
I'd be surprised if the County Council didn't unanimously require the County Administration, including the Executive, Treasurer, and anyone else necessary, to implement a GFOA award goal -and the funded strategy to actually achieve it.
That needs to happen soon, like maybe now.
Revenue surprises are one thing, but ignoring established policy, deficient financial facts, obfuscation and untimely reports are quite another!
The public deserves better than that. Much better!