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A Pride of Lawyers
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
A budget is the sum of goals quantified.
The civil city, council and clerk’s office have presented their budgets to city council for its review and recommendations, a process that will span most of the month of October and will be illustrated with raised councilmanic eyebrows, wagging fingers, condescending innuendo, and the frustrations of cut night.
As an overview, the budget proposal is $203 million, up just under 3% from last year. Drilling down just a tad, the mayor’s office has cut its budget line by -4%; on the other hand, the city clerk increased theirs by13%, council wants 13% more, community development wants an additional 10%, while the rest of the departments range from an -89% at Police Merit to 4.5% raises in the police department and at weights and measures. The biggest raw dollar increases are requested by police at $2.5 million and fire at $2.2 million, both departments featuring prominently among the mayor’s visions.
In short, most of the $5.4 million of additional expenditures are found in those two lines, police and fire, but when it comes to more patrols and more fire fighters few citizens, and yet fewer councilmen, will object. In all, staff head counts in civil city, from the mayor to the firefighter, are down slightly since 2011.
Mayor Henry has stated his goals “to providing essential services to residents, neighborhoods and businesses (as well as) economic development opportunities, job growth, strong neighborhoods and quality of life amenities that make our community a point of destination for investment and growth.” Lovely generalities, for sure, but they are essentially the goals our community has called for.
Additionally, the mayor’s budget requests four million dollars for neighborhood sidewalks, two million for neighborhood alleys, $1.4 for our many bridges, and millions for 22 new firefighters, and 24 new police officers. The parks, central to our neighborhoods, will also receive $3 million for long, long overdue repairs. Now it is up to city council to examine the mayor’s budget and see if it squares against the mayor’s goals. As goals or visions go, council has none, unless “cut, cut, cut” qualifies as visionary.
To wit, council might also look on their own budget with the same skeptical eye they apply to each executive branch department. Ironically, those most critical of civil city budgets hardly lift a hand to prepare their own budget, nor do they huddle to create a set of goals, nor do most review what their staff writes until the hearings. Remember the line, “if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there?”
Council’s current budget iteration seems to have surprised some members as it carries a hefty $60,000 increase in contractual services, the hiring of non-government workers contracted to do the public’s business.
The $60k balloon is called a contingency fee should council wish to hire a “contract” lawyer for whatever reason. Why $60,000?
Just as likely, the money is to pay for council’s attorney and his work on both the executive and legislative sides of the abatement process.
Since community development’s experienced and talented Alyssa McGauley moved to the county, the city been challenged to manage all aspects of the abatement process. It is complex and politically loaded work. So, the city attorney has increasingly come to prepare the abatements he is then supposed to scrutinize on behalf of council. That sounds like a conflict of interest in the making.
Another way of looking at the increase in council’s budget is to wonder if council is trying to take work and power from the executive.
To add fuel to that fire, last year council refused a request by Community Development for additional funding to hire someone to replace Mrs. McGauley. Since she left, the city has contracted with Greater Fort Wayne to bring them abatement requests. GFW is the old, repackaged Chamber of Commerce so that is rather like turning the chickens over to the fox for safekeeping.
The anonymous councilman who added the $60k line, reportedly Michael Barranda, himself a lawyer, is said to have inserted the funds to pay for general legal matters which the food seller, doctor, appraiser, park manager, financial advisor, accountant and others can not really be expected to understand. You know the line about not hiring a plumber to do brain surgery. Recently, for example, council members were schooled by a city attorney in the differences between “shall” and “may” when as expressed in law. Millions depend upon the correct tense of that and other verbs.
At least give Mr. Barranda credit to thinking through how to better council’s work.
So, having what amounts to a $60,000 “just-in-case, who-knows-for-what” slush fund to pay for unanticipated legal conundra makes some sense, until you consider council already has an attorney in budget, and the civil city also has a legal department that is also asking for a funding increase in anticipation of their growing work load.
And, there is Mr. Barranda.
Often boards of directors of corporations and non-profits, organizations much similar to city council, recruit members who serve the specialized needs of the organization, such as accounting, marketing, and legal expertise, such as that which councilman Barranda ably brings to the table.
Bottom line, if he thinks council can’t get along without a significantly increased budget for legal advice then he needs to very clearly explain how each of those $60,000 dollars will be used, as do the department he carefully scrutinizes. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
After all, a budget is a set of goals quantified…and justified.