If there’s one thing I’ve learned from attending common council meetings this year is that Alderman Ron Barone knows what he’s doing because he’s had 11 years experience as a Montgomery County supervisor. I know this because he makes a point of mentioning it at almost every meeting. And that’s fine, he was elected based on his experience.
But I think it’s worth looking at the legacy of the old board of supervisors’ way of handling the budget, because it seems to me that we may be heading down the same path.
Barone’s motto during this process has been “do more with less.” Of course that sounds like a good thing. Council members followed through with that idea and eliminated 3 full time positions from the budget. One of those cuts was to eliminate Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis’ full time assistant, even though he has gone on record to say that eliminating the position will impact his ability to process legal matters for the city. Barone disagrees, saying that the City Clerk’s office will be able to pick up the extra work.
County Executive Matthew Ossenfort (R) had his own take on the effect of “doing more with less” has had on county operations over the years. In a recent interview with the Compass, he criticized the old board of supervisors’ way of doing things saying:
One of the glaring things that I’ve noticed over the years, is the way the board of supervisors…the way they’ve acted as far as cutting budgets… they’ve simply removed positions when people retired – over and over and over again – and what it’s done is devastated the county departments…What I’m hearing loud and clear is – the days of doing more with less are over and now we are in a situation where we are doing less with less.
Could this description be a vision of the future state of the city?
The other way we know that Barone is looking to bring old county ideas into the city budget is because he said a couple months ago that he wanted to spend down the fund balance in order to reduce taxes. Back in April, he said, “I sat on a 21 million dollar fund balance at the county and we depleted it.” He defended the action saying that is was to reduce taxes.
I think it’s worth mentioning here that the shrinking size of the fund balance was something that many critics, especially Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler, attacked Mayor Ann Thane on constantly before last November’s election. But now, none of those same people are holding him accountable on this particular idea.
Controller Matt Agresta (R) called spending down the fund balance a “horrible idea.” And guess what – the NY State Office of the Comptroller agrees as well. A recent audit of Montgomery County’s finances found:
The Board did not adopt realistic and structurally balanced budgets and instead consistently relied on appropriating fund balance, a non-recurring revenue, to finance recurring expenditures. Further, in two of the last three years, the County incurred operating deficits. As a result, the financial condition of the general fund has diminished in recent years…The County’s declining financial condition is the result of poor budgeting and financial management practices and the Board’s failure to develop and use long-term financial plans.
The city’s exact fund balance isn’t known right now because of ongoing reconciliation work. Hopefully that will all be cleared up by the end of the year. However, last year’s budget had a $60,000 contingency line in the general fund. Funds from that line have not been used this year. The mayor’s budget increased the line to $100,000, but the council has increased that line to $150,000.
Before voting on their final budget adjustments, the council asked all departments to shave another 1% off their existing budgets, regardless if they had already made reductions or not. Frankly, I’m not convinced the council really knows if these cuts are realistic or not. Could that be why they increased the contingency line?
With the budget approved, taxes and fees will be set for the year. However if operating costs exceed the budgeted amounts, we’ll have to dip into contingency and then potentially into the fund balance. No doubt, the council will score points with the voters for keeping taxes down. But have they done so by putting the city into a worse position operationally and financially? We’ll have to take a close look throughout this coming fiscal year to see how many times the contingency or fund balance money is used to cover budget shortfalls.
(Photo Copyright Dreamstime/Larryhw)