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Nit Pickers

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


A councilman called her to the table to defend a budget item. Amy-Jo Sites, director of Animal Care and Control, sharp in her dark blue uniform, slid into the plush chair at the head of the mahogany table and thanked council for the invitation. Council snickered. Thatís a rare comment, one councilman smiled, thanking us for a chance to be grilled. As she began speaking, one councilman tied her to the stake, others arranged kindling at her feet while a third struck a match.

She had proposed to hire a staff veterinarian. She argued the new hire would not only save the city tens of thousands of dollars annually but also greatly improve services. She looked like Jean díArc as the flames licked at her uniform and councilmen poked and prodded with their questions.

One would think that the animal shelter would already have a staff vet, but instead ACC officers transport pups and kittens around town to contract vets who perform sterilizations and more serious operations. Director Sites explained that an in-house vet would save transportation costs, cut staff down time in waiting rooms, and slash the fees currently paid to contract vets. An in-house vet would also generate income for the shelter, she added. All together thatís rather the equivalent of bowling 300, or sinking a hole-in-one.

The following discussion among councilmen, however, was hardly about benefits to the community or encouragement for her initiative. Instead three councilmen focused on cutting an equivalent amount from her budget as if punishment were in order, as if tit-for-tat was their guiding budgetary principle.

Thatís the way most cuts are done during the annual fall budget session at city council.

The city budget process begins in earnest in October, when the mayorís budget is submitted to council for scrutiny. But were any instructions given by council leadership to the other councilmen as how to assess the many elements of the mayorís budget? You know, the sort of instructions a judge gives to a jury before deliberations? No, is the short answer, according to members of this and previous councils. Tradition says just propose something to cut ó anything, for any reason ó then put it to a vote

Councilís budget process seems hardly a reasoned exercise in good governance. A budget, after all, is just a quantification of the goals of the community, but goals and results were not discussed vis a vis hiring a staff vet, and not once was the cityís comprehensive plan mentioned as a touch-stone against which to measure any budget item.

Councilís approach is simply nitpicking. Over nine years council chose to pare a total of $9,333,563 from over one billion dollars in budget requests. That amounts to an average of $1,037,062 per year, about $17 per year per each of our 60,000 households, or $4.15 per year per person, thus a grand total savings of $38 per person over nine years.

On a percentage basis it is the very definition of nitpicking:

2009 _ Submitted: 134,424,672_ Approved: 132,157,252 Change: -$2,262,420 -1.6%
2010 _Submitted: 132,207,871_ Approved: 131,810,154__ Change: -$397,717 -0.3%
2011 _Submitted: 134,917,529 Approved: 131,816,124__ Change: -$3,101,315 -2.3%
2012 _Submitted: 134,450,859 __ Approved: 134,450,859 Change: -$0 0.00
2013_ Submitted: 139,851,936 Approved: 138,738,686 Change: -$1,113,250 -0.8%
2014_ Submitted: 142,078,710 Approved: 142,041,134 Change: -$37,566 -0.026%
2015 Submitted: 150,380,966_ Approved: 149,878,715 Change: -$502,251 -0.33%
2016 _Submitted: 150,591,378 Approved: 149,868,563__ Change: -$722,815 -0.48%
2017 Submitted: 152,774,623 Approved: 151,578,494 Change: -$1,196,229 -0.78%
(Courtesy City of Fort Wayne)

In those nine years the city budget was pared by less than .08 percent. A rabbit and a dart board might have done as much.

Ask most (not all) councilmen the whyfors and whatfors of any city department, including Animal Care and Control, and only a few will offer in-depth analysis.

Thus, carving $60k out of the ACC budget was more a slap in the face of good management than an example of good stewardship. By cutting for cuttingís sake, it was also an insult to the hundreds of volunteers who give of time and more to further the compassion and effectiveness of the shelter.

Does council have a yardstick against which to assess budgets? Of course, but you would never get that impression from councilís discussions. During the budget process seldom does a councilman compare a budget request to the goals of our comprehensive long-range plan known as Plan-It-Allen. A former councilman stated that in his eight years on council never did he hear any of councilís numerous budget chairs point to the comprehensive plan as a gauge.

Fort Wayneís first comprehensive plan was Foster and Kesslerís 1912 Park and Boulevard System, the ďCity in a ParkĒ plan, a revolution. Fast-forward to 2007 when two plans from the 80s were updated into Plan-It-Allen, a joint effort of the Richard administration and county. And, Plan-It-Allen comprises dozens of subordinate plans, such as neighborhood blueprints and the Bike-It-Allen Plan.

To be fair, only a few department heads mention Plan-it-Allen when defending their budgets. Usually, they say hereís what we did last go around, hereís how costs have gone up, and hereís how much more we need to cover rising costs. Decades of nitpicking have scotched innovation or bold initiative.

Consequently, budgets are based on inertia while cuts are based on a councilmanís biases, or a philosophy that all cuts, any cuts, are intrinsically good.

So, in the plush chair at the end of council table Director Sites wore a wan smile as council punished her initiative by slashing $60,000 from her budget. Thatís roughly one dollar per city household or a quarter per person per year based on a family of four. They thanked her as she left.

The message to every city employee was that creativity and initiative are more likely to be punished than praised.

The budget process is fundamentally flawed. If council is to improve the cityís effectiveness the newer members, especially, might first bone up on the cityís long-range plan against which to measure all requests. Then, they might divide city departments among themselves to become expert in the workings so that their budget discussions would be based on accepted goals or plans, or a cost-benefit analysis, rather than a recent reading of an obscure Austrian economist. And, council might find ways to reward innovation, creativity and initiative, rather than discouraging it.

As long as councilís approach to budgeting is just cutting-for-cuttingís-sake, which amounts to little more than an exercise in brownie point accumulation for the next campaign, city council will be little more than a drag on efforts to rebuild our city and to improve our quality of life.

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