Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Take My Council, Please: Transfer Me the Money...

The jockeying to preserve the city's reserve fund reached a critical vote yesterday leaving the confrontation between the mayor and the council at a standstill.  The items in question that reflected the mayor's policies took up precious little on the council's agenda, which as per usual was loaded largely with the typical minutiae of approving grants and funds for specific projects.  Additionally, there was movement on new revenue measures taken against tax delinquents and other housekeeping.

The Library Department was formally given money from grants for literacy, technology and education programs.  Health and Human Services accepted money for gyms at schools throughout the money to provide free fitness to city children.  Other grants went to the police department, elder affairs, and the fire department.  Moneys were also accepted from donors to repair a playground destroyed by the tornado.

However, the real action that night was in facing the mayor's proposal to transfer $8.9 million from the city's reserve account to the general budget.  Approximately $7.6 million is necessary to cover the city's remaining budget hole, leaving the council wondering why the discrepancy.  They were treated to the reason in the mayor's supplemental budget, which would essentially reverse much of the more than $2 million in cuts the council made in June.  Those cuts were decried by the mayor then.

In a finance subcommittee meeting, some departments hit particularly hard by the cuts appeared to be gaining leverage with the council, but certainly not enough to equal the $1.3 million the mayor wanted restored.  The largest cut was an indiscrimate removal of 5% from the city's Other Than Personnel Services line items.  It could have affected a whole host of city services from terrace cutting to gasoline for city vehicles, but fundamentally how those cuts were expressed was ultimately at the discretion of the mayor and his department heads.

Prior to the council vote Chief Administrative and Financial Officer, Lee Erdmann, intoned the ratings agencies and state financial officials in urging the council to pass the money transfer now.  These ratings agencies would include Standard & Poors whose downgrade of US debt has been largely ignored by the marketplace.  These fears and others rattled some councilors as the financial transfer failed 6-6, short of the nine votes necessary under the law (Councilor Tosado was running late from a mayoral debate).  That indicated approximately three councilors had flipped from the average 10-3 votes in support of cuts back in June.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)
The fear, expressed by the fiscal hawks on the council, was that the mayor was using the need for a financial transfer as a way to backdoor extra money into the general fund.  The transfer would need the two-thirds vote one way or another and the transfer for the budget hole is not in dispute.  However, if the council approve a larger than needed transfer, the mayor would only need simple majority votes to approve supplementals that could negate the council's cuts.

Before the actual vote, Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, noted that he and other councilors had been through several meetings with Erdmann to no avail.  He said we could not come to agreement that the council could find acceptable.  That would prompt Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion to stand, after the vote, and complain that he never asked somebody to negotiate for him.  Of course Concepcion certainly could have shown up to any of the finance committee meetings held since the budget was passed and, anecdotally, he did not.

After the measure failed and the council moved onto another, smaller appropriation, Fenton also the Finance Committee Chair, spoke about the importance of preserving the reserve funds, briefly noting that it be used only for emergencies like the hurricane, capital expenses or the plug holes only when absolutely necessary.  However, the next appropriation, which included a revised furlough program to distribute furlough days based on an employees pay (the less you make the less furlough days you must take), was not clean.

The second appropriation included money for a whole host of other departments and items beyond the furloughs.  The council wanted to just vote for a specific item, but following a confab between the City Solicitor and the City Clerk, it was determined that the council would either need to go through a laborious budget-like line by line process to strip out everything by the furloughs or vote the entire item down.  A motion to refer the matter to committee failed on a 6-6 vote leaving the council.  Erdmann offered the council an assessment of what from the appropriation was the furlough alone, but before that got very far Tosado entered the chamber and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen called for immediate reconsideration.  After some grumbling from Concepcion, the council voted to reconsider the motion to committee, sending the package to the finance committee.

On the reconsideration Tosado voted yes, but some councilors switched their votes, oddly.  In any event the item went to committee where it will no doubt be dissected and torn apart by committeemembers.  Another measure for CitiStat, whose future remains uncertain after the council essentially defunded it was also sent to committee.  The council made a strong stand today showing it remains serious about being taken seriously as a part of the city's government.  The city has a strong-mayor system and nobody denies it.  However, it is not a unipolar system and many on the council, most of whom are by way of ward representation freshman, remain insistent that they be respected.

In tonight's mayoral debate, Domenic Sarno said he had a great relationship with the council.  The mere fact of the measures before the council and their defeat should be proof to him otherwise.  (BTW dont miss our debate write-up tomorrow!)

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