continued Q. And that's about $58 million?
A. According to the City, it's approximately $58 million, and I think in this budget originally the city manager put aside less than $1 million [toward deferred maintenance], and I think the mayor and the council adopted maybe another $1 million or so. We have a long ways to go in order to meet the needs. Every year that goes by, new items get added to the list, and the old items get in worse condition, so it's just going to cost us more.
Q. You've called for a hiring freeze - rejected by the city council - that would have gone into effect this year?
A. Would have gone in July 1. Basically it would have been for employees that were on staff but not budgeted last year - for instance, the employees hired for the Republican convention - or new employees that have not yet been hired; we excluded public safety [police and fire] from that. We thought it was a discipline the council should embark on and have the city manager come back and justify why he needs these new employees that he's recommending hiring; justify why every department needs these increases, why they can't go another year at the same budget level.
Q. Generally it sounds like you're kind of skeptical regarding the way the council has been examining the city's finances.
A. The whole budget process is in serious need of change. Basically the manager releases the budget quite late in the process, I think it was getting close to May this year. The council then scrambles around at the last minute, trying to find funds for their key pet programs, which are important for their district, and they really don't watch the broader issues. Also, the last day, all the councilmembers - or four or five of them - submitted memos. They wanted changes. The mayor submitted a memo; the city manager submitted a memo saying they had $10 million in new money. There was no time to examine that at all; the public had no time to examine it. It was all done at the last minute, slapped down on the last day when they were going to finish the budget, and that is not a good public process. We believe they should give these broader policy directions early up front to the manager.
We sense that the manager has really been running this process. He's supposed to run the city, but the city council sets the direction of spending in the city, and the manager has set up the process that the council is reactive to instead of proactive, and that's unfortunate. In all frankness, a lot of councilmembers don't take a keen interest in the budget process; they're more interested in getting a street paved in their district. They consider the budget process to be more like dental work, something they want to avoid. And when it's over they say, "Good, I don't have to deal with that for another year." That's unfortunate, because that's the key to them effecting where the money comes from, [money] to take care of their districts, to take care of the city.
Q. You also want to cut something called "community service centers" and save $400,000. What are those? I know that they're popping up in shopping centers around town. City branch offices, aren't they?
A. The community service centers are like mini city halls, bringing government close to the people. Well, my impression is that people don't want government close to them. They want to be able to have government stay away from them and leave them alone. When they have a problem, they want to be able to pick up the phone, say, "I have a problem, solve it for me quickly." You're looking at outfitting a wonderful place with new desks and chairs and computers and equipment...almost $100,000 for each one. Like I said, you could almost buy a house in North Park for what they're going to spend in one year on these things in rents and services. It's a new process: it hasn't been tested out yet. They haven't really seen how supported it is by the public, and they really should at least defer it for a year or so.
Q. Any other examples of wasteful spending?
A. A couple of others, real quickly. Public Information Officers. I don't know the budgeted amount, but the City has at least 15 employees, excluding the mayor and council staff - and this is 15 they'll admit to - whose sole focus is public information. In addition, other employees do assist in public information activities. We feel they should be at least consolidating or eliminating some of these positions. Couldn't deputy or assistant city managers or department directors act as press spokespeople when issues come up? So there are at least 15 positions doing this throughout the city in different departments.
They also have a "Development and Endowment" department, which spends about $228,000, up $35,000 this year. These people basically look and try to get endowments and donations for the city. If you did this on commission, these people would have to raise three to four million to justify their salary based upon what the private sector does on commission. They don't raise that much, and most of the money that was raised last year, at least on the development side, was related to the Republican convention, once again, which was sort of a one-time issue.
Another area, small, but $75,000 for a municipal government fellowship program, basically paid interns. It's important to bring young people in, but do we have to pay $75,000 for this program? Another couple of issues: they have a bicycle coordinator for $70,000 with the City, and they have a telecommuting coordinator, someone who coordinates, apparently, people working out of their homes, at $80,000 budgeted toward that position.
Q. So that's what happened this year. What about next year?
A. Our goal for next year's budget is to get into it really early, starting in the next couple of months, so we can have a lot more scrutiny early on. Also we have a new city manager coming on. Hopefully he will be more proactive in finding a way to get the council involved in setting these policy and spending issues.