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Council members surprised by changed format for budget process

Friday, May 9, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Several City Council members expressed surprise Thursday about not being provided with budget presentations from city departments as part of their FY2015 budget deliberations. Members also said they were concerned over a decline in the amount of information delivered by staff as part of the budget process.


The issue appeared almost immediately as Council Member Laura Morrison noted that City Manager Marc Ott’s budget did not include any discussion of unmet departmental needs. That discussion, one where department heads bring forward potential and real service gaps, has been a feature of all other recent budget discussions.


Ott pointed back to what has become a mantra for city staff as they’ve moved through the FY2015 budget process. “We are very purposeful in our approach to the budget and the austere nature of the instructions that we gave to the departments not to develop that typical unmet needs list because we understood early on that we didn’t feel that we were going to be in a position to actually fund any of those, given the kind of goals that we had set out from the very outset: That (there was to be) no tax increase and so on, and a very focused look at reducing our vacancies as well,” he said.


“Here’s the thing, I think this is more efficient than last year,” Morrison told the Monitor, “On the other hand, for me as a person working on the budget – (and) probably for some of my other colleagues, the same thing, diving in like that (we understand). But as a matter of public discussion, it’s definitely ratcheted back.”


Council Member Bill Spelman echoed Morrison’s comments. He added that “I think there should have been more attention given to unmet needs (but) I think I understand why they did not give much attention to unmet needs: because they are going to try and handle this administratively rather than have this be up to the Council’s discretion.”


Council Member Kathie Tovo noted that the video presentations offered as part of FY2014 budget deliberations were informative, but that they were “presented in a format that wasn’t as practical as the presentations done live.” This year, she suggested, “is definitely a reduction in information – and obviously, we need as much information as possible, or we’re going to be, in July and August, extending our budget time.”


She added that the current process could result in more formal budget questions from Council members – a development she suggested could be more “time intensive” for staff and management.


Spelman and Morrison each further agreed that such decisions are policy questions, and should therefore be decided by Council. “If they can handle most of the unmet needs administratively, great, I’m a happy guy,” Spelman continued. “If they can’t, we need to know what they are to make the policy decision, and that means – I think – we need to know at least roughly what they are in advance. Then we can compare what they were in total, to what the manager was able to work out administratively, and then we can make a reasonable decision as to whether we need to add it back or what.”


Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said, “We are not aware of concerns about departments not making forecast presentations. Today’s process allows more time for Council to engage in discussions of issues and to question staff. Departments will present their final budget recommendations to Council in August.”


This is not the first time that a Council member has expressed some concern about Ott overstepping his purview with regard to the budget process. In a Jan. 10 memo, Ott, in all caps, laid out a call for “NO INCREASE IN THE PROPERTY TAX RATE.”


Council Member Mike Martinez responded that same day with an email to Assistant City Attorney Anne Morgan. “Anne, this memo troubles me. How can the manager send this to the entire Council with a ‘pronouncement’ on what is purely a policy matter (raising the tax rate or not) and when a vote by the Council is forthcoming. Seems to me like this could easily be seen as a quorum issue at worst and trying to influence council votes at best.


“Am I missing something?” Martinez continued. “Please provide any clarity you might have.”


Morgan’s response is not subject to public information requests. Ott’s budget moved forward with the no tax increase edict in effect.


On Thursday, Spelman echoed that concern. When asked if he agreed with the statement that Ott was trying to dictate policy to Council members, Spelman said he did.


Morrison was more diplomatic. “I can’t imagine that he could envision that we wouldn’t be the ones to be making those decisions,” she said. “It was made a little bit harder by us having to say, ‘hey, we really do want to hear about the critical unmet needs because we do need to make those decisions.


“Did he think that was going to happen?” she continued. “Probably only in his dreams.”


For her part, Tovo suggested that Ott’s no new property tax pledge was “his following our lead and policy direction from last year.” She did, however, say that she and her colleagues needed to understand the critical needs of each department.


Morrison further dissected the no property tax increase call as part of Thursday’s deliberations. “The rollback rate…is lower than our existing rate,” she began. “Which means that without an election, we would have to cut our tax rate.”


As for the unmet needs question, Morrison did indeed ask several departments whether they had unmet needs. Additionally, Mayor Lee Leffingwell suggested that next week could bring further discussion of that issue.

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