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Budget battles

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


Councilman Russ Jehl stared at City Controller Len Pohler and said, “do you think you’ll be able to brief council on the highlights and new positions before presenting it publically?” It was the proverbial slap in the face that the reserved, taciturn Mr. Pohler took stoically, as if Mr. Jehl’s question were the 30th of 50 lashes. Pohler stared back and quietly said, “Yeah, I think so.” Councilman Jehl’s whip across the administration’s back was the final confrontation of the three-month long budget process where the administration proposes and council disposes, where the quantification of work plans for the coming year are handed down, where often purpose and rôles are confused.

The Jehl-Pohler tête-à-tête came at the end of that last night of sometimes testy wrangling, Mr. Jehl had proposed nearly a dozen cuts but had won but a handful, and had withdrawn most others after clarifications from one department head after another. Mr. Jehl explained that had that the administration only been more forthcoming few of his cuts would not have been submitted.

After the dressing down by Mr. Jehl we asked Pohler about the comment. “I’ll show you our phone logs,” Pohler said. He didn’t call, referring to Mr. Jehl. Other members of council did call, he didn’t.

An administration official added that all councilmen had been invited to briefings by city officials, and all but Councilmen Jehl and Hines attended. Mr. Jehl responded that by that point in the process, after the budget had been prepare and submitted to council, it was too late to play a constructive rôle. In short, his complaint was less a matter of communications, and more about who would set the course of little ship of state.

There are occasional, but infrequent calls for a better budgeting process with frustration emanating from both sides. Mr. Jehl’s complaint is occasionally voiced by some of his fellow Republicans on council. In short, they want more control over the process that determines what projects will go forward.

First, one should note that over the past 10 years council has passed mayoral budgets with a bit more than 99% of proposals fully funded! Instead of taking nasty swipes at the administration, council members should lavish praise on the administration for A+ performance.

Secondly, a few high profile cuts are proposed without hope of success, rather
a chance for some councilmen to make their philosophical points on the grand stage before cameras and the more serious print press of Gong and Leininger. Usually administration officials respond very cautiously for fear of fueling a needless fight, and like Controller Pohler just grin and bear it.

The rare recent exception was when Park’s Director Al Moll was called to defend a sliver or a sliver from deep within his budget. The need for a proposed new employee was questioned by a councilman based on the rather inflexible dogma of smaller government is always better. Moll, the highly respected director of the city’s parks system, explained how the project was beneficial to the community and would need a person to do the work. Then, he eyed council and challenged their oft-repeated refrain that new money should never, ever be added to the city’s budget, no new positions, no new initiatives. He reminded the Fort Wayne Nine, most of them champions of a business mimicking approach to government, that he had been the chief financial officer of a Fortune 500 company and that business doesn’t work that way. Dr. John Crawford’s torso twisted to the right a bit, his head tiled back and the right eye peered from the corner of narrowed lids. It was a direct challenge, mano-a-mano, to the small government dogma of the council Republicans, but one that Dr. Crawford, himself, and the others occasionally violate. The goal of business is investment for profit, and can be equally applied to governance of our city.

What the comment of the capable and honorable Mr. Jehl suggests is that council be involved in formulating department budgets from scratch. One can image how fraught that might be.

In short, the Henry Administration is not going to muddy the process by inviting Councilman Ensley or Arp or the irritable Mr. Barranda to sit in on meeting after meeting after meeting, deep in the bowls of the street department to oversee formulation of that department’s budget. Neither is any member of council well enough informed to weigh in on the subtleties of asphalt and substrata preparation, nor do they have the time from their busy day jobs as food salesman, financial advisor, accountant and oncologist to devote the requisite time.

Council counsels. The administration administers. The later leads, the former advises. That is what we vote for.

The obvious alternative is for council to compile their own set of goals for the city, and assign dollar figures. In short, they would have to construct what is called in Britain, a “shadow government” with its shadow department heads and researchers. Over time such a shadow government would construct a budget of their own to compete against the administration’s plans. But that approach is unlikely given the loads of additional work involved. (*Please note some of our councilmen chafe at having to answer emails and calls from constituents!)

However, the Republicans on council did take baby steps in that very “shadow government” direction by adding new money for their administrative/research assistant, and by pumping more money into their Republican city council attorney. In short, in contradiction of the Crawford-Arp-Barranda-Jehl-Ensley chant of smaller government, they happily fattened their own budget lines.

There is an alternative, perhaps, that given the dizzying complexity of the city’s budget, it would help to afford councilmen additional time to delve into the details. It shouldn’t be that hard, one year’s budget is fundamentally a continuation of the previous year’s budget, and new money in the proposed budget is clearly highlighted. And, if councilmen have been doing their due diligence over the preceding year, they should have a fairly good grasp of the nuances of the budget even before it hits their in-boxes.

Another productive step would be for all councilmen to attend all briefings.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.