Saturday, April 26, 2008

“Different” Budget Process Clouds Transparency

At the council’s first budget work session on April 22, we learned from the police personnel committee that the chief of police had requested additional officers for the department. According to Page 402 (see it here) of the Mayor’s Proposed Budget book, no such request had been made. The fire department personnel committee advised us of the chief’s request for additional firefighters to meet minimum response standards again, per Page 424 (see it here) of the Mayor’s Proposed Budget, no such request was reflected.

In his opening remarks, City Administrator John Pick stated that the administration decided to do things differently this year. He said that department heads were told to submit a budget at no more than 3% increase than the current year and anything additional would be kept separately as “supplemental budget” for consideration if the budget offered room for additions. Thus, unlike last year, the mayor’s proposed budget book and line-item detail do not consistently show requests as “unable to fund.” This has left the council with a false impression about what was requested by some departments, including police and fire, especially since this “supplemental budget” information was not provided in any form to the council.

Upon learning this situation at the meeting, held seven days after the proposed budget was delivered by the mayor on April 15, we immediately requested to have the full budget requests as soon as possible so we could better consider the context of the figures in the mayor’s budget and analyze budgetary priorities for optimum delivery of essential services to Salisbury taxpayers.

Further, this new methodology does not allow the public to see easily what departmentally requested items were cut from the mayor’s proposed budget. The public would only see cuts and additions to the budget made by the council, and the council would be hard-pressed to recommend additions or substitutions responsibly without knowing the departmental requests that had been cut by the mayor.

We feel this approach gives the public a skewed impression of priorities and diminishes transparency and accountability. For example, some people (including us) were under the mistaken impression that the chief of police had not requested more officers because that is what the mayor’s budget book stated. We now know this is untrue.

As of mid-day Friday, we have received a packet of “supplemental budget” information, the police and fire requests having been delivered Wednesday. We will be reviewing this packet so that the budget can be better prioritized and will share some of our budget observations on this website.

We encourage citizens to look at the budget and form their own conclusions. As the Salisbury Charter requires, the budget, budget message and all supporting schedules are public records. By charter, this information is supposed to be kept in the Department of Internal Services, open to public inspection. Also per charter SC7-15, “The Mayor shall cause sufficient copies of the budget and budget message to be prepared for distribution to interested persons.” The county library downtown has traditionally kept a copy as well.

For your convenience, at right under our pictures, you’ll find links to downloadable PDFs of the “Next Year/Current Year Budget Analysis.” This provides detailed information about the proposed budget accounts. We hope you will review your areas of interest (the document is broken into several files for downloading ease and focus area review) and contact council members with your questions, concerns and suggestions.