Home > Political Animal > The community budgeting process has become an embarrassment

The community budgeting process has become an embarrassment

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-10-20


What could have been a mature discussion of what needs to be done in the coming years and how to pay for it has, instead, became a snarling match degraded to spats over where to recharge an electric car.

The players were the Mayor and City Council, with council woman Liz Brown chair of the finance committee and pro tem leader of the council.

Budget hearings became a series of charges, counter charges and finally a night of strike outs. It devolved into fights over matters that had little or nothing to do with the budget, such as where to park that electric car deployed by the City Clerk’s office, and became more a forum where council members played gotcha in an effort to embarrass the administration in an election year.

Council members know it could have been better, but they had and have two fundamental problems: the rules reduce them to reactionaries, and they are a fractious organization.

Nine souls serve as city council members. Three, the at-large members, Liz Brown, John Shoaff and Marty Bender, can be seen as senators of a sort, while the other six represent districts. On council are five Republicans and four Democrats, but party loyalty is often less a consideration than old friendships and extramural alliances. There is no such thing as party unity, or a party line. Petty alliances ebb and flow with the issue at hand. There is no cohesion; there is no one voice that speaks for council, there was no common front.

On the other side is the unified and well-armed administration with some 2000 people who work together to form both a common front and formulate a budget which they all promote and defend.

Council, by contrast, has one staff member who helps with research and clerical duties. It is no match.

Further, council can cut, but not add to the budget. They can move money around, but only with the concurrence of the administration.

So, council is reduced to sniping at administration representatives over items small and large. A budget book in a large, weighty binder is delivered to each council member for review. It is arcane, at best, and designed to hide fudge.

So, each year council tries to find the fudge and the administration tries to protect it. Anyone who has been through a budgeting process knows that you ask for what you want, within reason, and are willing to give a little.

So, there is always some room to cut. The administration appeals that their budget shows little increase over the years and that they are doing more with less, delivering the same services to an expanding city and a growing population. This year they added that health care spikes were the reason for a slightly larger budget. They touted efficiencies in wholesale purchases of gas and diesel, and advancements with even more future promise such as the 311 system.

Still, to cut suggests having a reason other than a handy knife, to build a budget suggests longer term goals.

This year’s budget process was especially fraught because of the personalities involved and that little matter of a city election.

Over the past four years council woman Liz Brown has developed a reputation for initiating testy combat within council and with the city. She is known for snide comments and harsh words. With that reputation for divisiveness she was still given the gavel by council president Mitch Harper to run 2011 budget hearings.

During the proceedings she grilled one witness after another and used her power to curb comments by other members of council. One angry exchange followed another, and it was she who attacked City Clerk Sandy Kennedy over where the clerk’s new electric vehicle would be charged. Certainly, not a matter germane to the budget.

Tuesday, the 18th, council’s oversight of the budgeting process came to a halt. Mrs. Brown, who ardently wishes to defeat Tom Henry, offered 19 cuts to the budget. None passed. She was forced to withdraw some, others failed to gain a second in order to progress, and the rest were defeated by 8 to 1, 7 to 2 and 6-2-1 margins. Mrs. Brown had made the hearings her own, but her colleagues generally turned their backs on her minimalist vision of government.

Given a lack of unity on council the process highlighted the power of the administration to run over council, especially when in the hands of someone who has so thoroughly alienated her colleagues. She had not rallied others to her side to form a common front, to offer a vision by which cuts might be rationalized and justified.

Sadly, however, the administration did not offer much vision for the future, except in the 311 discussion which was more about efficiencies than improving the quality of life in Fort Wayne.

Certainly, the council offered no vision, what-so-ever. So, this year’s budget is status quo. Spending will be flat, there will be no tax increases and the mayor promises city workers will do more with less, and at the end of the year more surplus, or fudge, will be to add to the mounting unobligated reserves…another story for another time.

Bottom line: the administration got what it wanted and protected their fudge, their cushion. Council seemed at times petty, churlish and leaderless. The argument over the budget helped Tom Henry (no new taxes, same great services) and did nothing to underscore opponent Paula Hughes’ argument that the city is on the fiscal rocks. The goal of outing the mayor on budgetary excess flopped.

This will be repeated in 2012 by mayor and council. It would be nice if they worked a bit more as a team. But, if council is to play a more constructive role in creating a vision of our future they need a new process, what ended October 18th should be consigned to a landfill.

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