Council Near Final Budget, But Hang-Ups Remain

The budget is close to completion, but the city’s administration and City Council aren’t playing horseshoes.
They will be forced to make an 11th-hour vote on the final budget later this month to ensure the city has a formal spending plan by the beginning of September, a deadline that is already past the July 1 start of the fiscal year. The City Council, in its meeting last week, remained hung up on the Parks and Public Works Department, as well as the Recreation Department, but narrowly issued tentative approval for the other municipal departments.
“We’ve got a month,” Mayor Steve Talt said. “I think we can approve all but Public Works and Recreation, and then we can focus on those two at the Aug. 29th meeting. There’s no reason it can’t be done.”
Councilwoman Gretchen Shepherd Romey expressed the most substantial frustration with those two parts of the budget, bemoaning in particular a number of personnel-related line items in Parks and Public Works with increases that exceeded the 2% cost-of-living raises for city employees. Michael Throne, the department’s director, was on vacation when the meeting took place and not on hand to explain the costs, although City Manager Marcella Marlowe pointed out some of the increases reflected potential merit increases.
“As long as those are there, I can’t support this,” Shepherd Romey said, referring to the budgets of the two departments in question.
Shepherd Romey did acknowledge that Marlowe and other department heads — Throne and Finance Director Josh Betta, chiefly — are in their first year on the job and, like herself and council members Susan Jakubowski and Ken Ude, more or less inherited a functional mess of a city operation.
That fact, combined with measures to overhaul the process by which city officials plan long-term and allocate public dollars, has served to make this budgeting process particularly fraught for the officials, not least because of the two-month delay in approving it.
Discussions have been pushed from meeting to meeting, with one impromptu meeting called and two others that lasted more than six hours.
On Aug. 29, the City Council is hoping to receive specific justifications for the personnel line-item increases in Parks and Public Works and also a budgetary freeze on the Recreation Department until the city begins dismantling and reassembling that unit later in the budget year; the proposed budget had frozen the department’s programming rather than the dollar amount.
Members of a 2016 ad hoc committee also are expected to meet with Betta, Marlowe and Throne regarding their recommendations for the Parks and Public Works Department and how they might line up with the proposed budget. Jakubowski served as one of the five advisers to that committee and featured that experience prominently in her election campaign last year.
“I think that now that the budget numbers are out there, it might be very helpful for them to sit down with the ad hoc committee and apply those numbers to what the thought process was at the time,” Talt explained.
Marlowe, who already has met with the advisers, agreed to the meeting but emphasized to the City Council that the slow pace of implementing departmental changes has more to do with ironing out kinks in current procedures than a rejection of the ad hoc committee’s work.
“It’s just been taking time to figure out what can be implemented in the current environment that we’re in,” she said. “No one on staff has taken a position against the recommendations.”
Even after all this, a unanimous approval — though not required — at the end of the month seems unlikely. Jakubowski voted against the plan on Friday with respect to Marlowe’s recommendation against partially approving a budget, but Ude — whose election campaign last year emphasized increasing the city government’s efficiency — has remained opposed to this budget on principle, insisting it be based on operating metrics rather than a straight year-to-year comparison.
“I think it’s probably the most complete budget package the city has seen, and I think we’re so close to tying it together, but we haven’t linked them,” he said. “I was looking for meaningful discussion about cost reductions and about efficiency, but we didn’t have them.”
On a net level, expenditures in the proposal budget reflected a roughly 1% increase from the previous year, but council members were hoping to make good on electoral promises to reel in expenses while working with department heads to build an effective city operation. It’s clear that, moving forward, officials will take a hard look at personnel — according to Talt, spending on staff is more than 60% of the budget.
“That’s where the savings are going to come,” he said. “We’re not in a position to do that now.”
At that, Talt pledged to work with his colleagues to fine-tune the budgeting process to more effectively plan long-term items and integrate department goals with operating metrics to determine what expenses are appropriate.
“We didn’t start that process early enough,” he said. “My recommendation would be that we develop financial policies — so that they’re long-term fixes and not short-term fixes year to year — that adopt some of the principles that [the other council members] have talked about, so that the budget process finds the savings you’re talking about and finds the information we’re requesting.”

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