Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Simple Request to Discuss a Line-Item Budget By Councilwoman Terry E. Cohen

The February 25, 2008, Salisbury City Council meeting began with a simple, but meaningful request by Councilwoman Campbell to add an item to the agenda to discuss changing the council’s budget process from its “program level” review and approval to the more detailed line-item level.

It’s important to note that Mrs. Campbell was not asking the council to actually make that decision with their votes on the motion, only to add discussion of it to the agenda, at which time a decision might be made, deferred to a work session, or addressed in another manner. The need to bring it up that night is due to the department heads already being in the midst of developing their FY09 budgets.

I seconded the motion, and it failed in a vote of 2 to 3, with Smith, Comegys and Shields voting “nay.” I should have raised discussion on the motion, and for not doing so, I apologize to the constituents. I made the point in another motion-to-amend discussion that, there seems to be no record of official action or consensus taken by the council to stop reviewing at a line-item level and begin approving the budget at a “program level.”

Last year during budget deliberations, council did discuss some areas in line-item detail, but some were more rushed through because it was a “program level” budget. This year, we have scheduled some day-long budget work sessions to approach the budget with greater detail and oversight – now especially important in light of the revelations from the city audit and the current issues involving corruption in a portion of county government. Yet, this does not guarantee a line-item process and approval.

If the result is still just a council “program level” budget with a listing of limited line-items changed, packaged with the mayor’s budget message, then the ability to monitor compliance with the line-items is impaired. As well, the public is given very little detail about how their tax dollars are being spent without great effort on their part.

I am disappointed that the remainder of the council didn’t join me in supporting Mrs. Campbell’s modest request to amend the agenda to at least discuss the issue. If we, as a council, are going to demand accountability, fiscal responsibility, and government in the sunshine from the administration, then we should, as a council, at least be willing to discuss demanding it of ourselves as well – especially at a time when such discussion is becoming time-critical and the public trust has been shaken by city and county events.