Whizzing Budget

Dear Readers,
The final city budget vote whizzed by so quickly Your Gilbert almost missed it. We were busy poking ourselves with sharp pins to keep ourselves awake during yet another set of citizen committee interviews when we heard the words “. . . budget tax rate passes.”

The Takoma Park city council reduced the tax rate by a half cent (not the two cent reduction advocated by council freshman Dan Robinson). For every $100 of assessed value of their homes, resident homeowners will pay sixty and a half cents.

Complaints about the budget process were voiced the previous week by many of the council members. Councilmember Robinson said he had been taken aback when in the course of public meetings with department heads there was no review of their budgets. As Your Ace Reporter Gilbert reported at the time “The budget discussion has largely consisted of department heads being interviewed by the council. These are similar to citizen committee interviews . . . .

In both cases the interviewee tells the council how much they want to serve the city, and the council tells the interviewee how much they appreciate their committee/department.”

* * * *
He was not the only one with a raised eyebrow. Other councilmembers, notably Terry Seamens, also thought there was precious little review in the review. They vowed to change the process next budget eason.

Dear Readers with long memories will recall last year’s budget process under our previous mayor Kathy Porter. Those readers are recalling with a spooky sense of deja-vu the similar council complaints and vows to reform the process then.

We are wondering, Dear Readers, that since Takoma Park has a professional city manager whether the council really gets much say in the matter.

In a city manager-style of government part of the city manager’s job description is to devise the budget. The point of this is to take that job out of the hands of the elected officials who may want to use the budget as a partisan tool. It also supposedly put the job in the hands of an expert who would have the best interests of the city residents (and their pocketbooks) in mind. That was the idea during the Progressive Era when the city-manager model was invented.

As you can see in last weeks guest blog by Alain Thery, some citizens (and perhaps a councilmember or two) suspect city managers are more interested in maintaining and growing the city bureaucracy than guarding the public pocketbook.

What do you think, Dear Reader?

– Gilbert

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

1 Comment on "Whizzing Budget"

  1. Alain Thery | June 11, 2008 at 3:53 pm |

    You imply that the role of the City Manager is to devise the budget, allegedly on technical grounds, as elected officials would have a tendency to politicize the budget process. If this was to be the case, we would not need elected officials since their role would be reduced to that of approving what is put in front of them by the City Manager. Unfortunately, a situation
    very close to the one that we largely have living here in Takoma Park…
    I have a different view of the role of City Manager. The City Manager is hired at the pleasure of the Mayor and the City Council and is under contract with the City to manage the day to day activities of the City administration and its services according to the adopted budget and accepted standards of public management. It is true that one of the responsibilities of the City Manager is to draft a proposed budget taking into account directions of the Mayor and the City Council and to be ready to discuss it with the Mayor and the City Council.
    It goes without saying that if the Mayor and the City Council basically abdicate their responsibilities in this matter by not providing clear directions for the draft budget and not asking the difficult questions during the review of the proposed budget (as it seems it has become customary in Takoma Park), it is clear that the City Manager has all the leeway to follow that the path that is most convenient.
    You must have seen CVs of public officials and how they frame their accomplishments: “Responsible for the implementation and the management of a budget of $ X millions” with the degree of success apparently directly proportional to X! So without direct accountability to the taxpayers of Takoma Park and with a City Council largely dysfunctional with regards to budget matters (as basically recognized by some of the Council Members), the path is free for the City Manager to draft sloppy budgets that (1) are not based on rolling multi-year scenarios, that (2) do not even try for efficiency gains as they are based on the past year plus the increase in assessments but (3) will contribute in boosting the strength of the CV.
    The fact is that the adoption of a budget is a political act, representing the decisions of our elected officials on how the resources of our community are to be used. My observation of that process in Takoma Park over the last 6 years leads me to conclude that our elected officials have had a tendency to let the City Manager usurp the prerogatives that come with elected office: if anything the position of the current City Manager during the discussions of the need for a prior approval of budgetary amendment as contrasted to de facto ones already indicated a readiness to twist public budgeting rules and usurp the powers of the Council.

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