Friday, May 9, 2008

Delayed Budget Information Is Dual Eye-Opener

At yesterday’s budget work session, Ms. Turner of the Department of Public Works (DPW) provided an excellent forecast model she created on the water and sewer fund relevant to the impact on its surplus given some different scenarios. Ms. Turner deserves our thanks for her initiative and outstanding work.

Two eye-openers resulted from council receiving this information. One is, to replace our aging infrastructure over the coming years, sewer and water rates have to be increased at some level very soon. This in itself is not a surprise, but DPW Director Jim Caldwell’s recommended level of 25% in the first year and 20% in year two, with inflationary increases afterward, coupled with even more hard-hitting possible scenarios, was a stark revelation. The council will need to consider deeply and quickly the numerous factors involved in order to develop budgetary policy to deal with these scenarios in the most balanced way possible.

The forecasting tool that now provides us with the ability to understand the actual financial impact of annexations given sweet deals and a long-standing policy of allowing the city’s deteriorating infrastructure to continue to decline. Every time you see a pot hole or crumbling sidewalk, the Hearne and Sassafras annexations, the Salisbury Mall TIF and numerous developer reimbursements will come to mind.

The good news is – and there is good news – this tool will allow this and future councils to properly fund the water utility and bring greater transparency and order to the budget and financial management process. Our goal is to see this long-overdue process applied to the entire budget.

The second eye-opener is, this information was available as early as April 3, but the council did not receive it until nearly a month later on April 30 – two weeks after the presentation of the proposed budget by Mayor Tilghman. The mayor did not make a recommendation for a rate increase, instead saying at her public budget presentation that she just plugged in over $4 million dollars of surplus to balance the water and sewer fund budget until she could have “discussions” with the council.

Wednesday’s work session was apparently intended to be one of those “discussions,” but the mayor was not present. Is the mayor’s proposed budget her budget or not? What scenario with what level of rate increase did she plan to recommend since she had the forecast in enough time prior to presenting her budget to make a recommendation? Especially given that the administration was copied on the council’s budget session schedule, did the mayor not think that it would be beneficial to have this discussion sooner than five weeks after the information was available, and with just a month left before the budget must be struck?

First the mayor’s proposed budget has inconsistent representations of the department heads’ funding requests granted and denied, which the council learned a week after the budget had been presented by the mayor. Then, we had to ask to see actual requests to reconcile them against the budget, and these came 8 and 10 days after the budget was presented. Now, with only a month to go in the council’s budget process, we are briefed on this critical situation with the water and sewer fund with serious implications for both our infrastructure and our taxpayers.

Like last year’s last-minute revelation of a huge tax hike, the mayor’s pattern of suppressing information and severe budgetary changes until the last possible moment does not serve the city and its citizens well. When the mayor is not forthcoming with full information in a timely manner and is not clear regarding her budget recommendations, the council and the public cannot know the true status of our city’s financial picture, any more than they could with late audits and delayed updates on the current year-to-date expenditures.

The mayor’s budget process takes place largely out of the view of the public, while the council’s process is open to full public view. The taxpayers of Salisbury have a right to know exactly where the mayor stands on spending their money and her rationale for doing so. They have a right to the transparency of full and timely information from the administration and to hold the mayor accountable for her decisions, rather than have her portion of budget accountability shifted to the council, which has its own share to shoulder.