Sunday, May 10, 2009

Budget Negotations and Council Effectiveness Overall

I have fallen so far behind in my writing that today I'm going to bring up a T-P article that appeared in last Saturday's paper. I thought it was so important that I packed it up and brought it with me when I moved.

N.O. budget methods slammed in report

The report, sent Thursday to Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council members, said the way Nagin's team, like previous administrations, creates and presents the budget "has been anything but inclusive and has provided no opportunity for outside input" until after the document is revealed. At that point, there's usually only a month left before the council's Dec. 1 deadline to vote on it.

Odom said the recommendations in the report could be implemented before the 2010 budget, the last one Nagin will present, is prepared and debated.


The report notes that since 2007 the administration "purports to have adopted" a process known as "budgeting for outcomes," which "is intended to promote transparency, accountability and inclusion in the budget process."

However, it says, even though that process calls for involving a broad spectrum of "stakeholders, including citizens, community leaders and council members, in establishing the city's budget priorities," the city's actual procedures "offer no effective opportunities for discussion" until after the mayor unveils his proposals.

The lack of outside participation, especially by council members, in preparing the mayor's 2009 budget "became evident in the struggle that ensued after the mayor submitted" his proposals on Oct. 28, the report says.

As a result, the report says, "all the extensive planning work that had gone into prioritizing programs through the 'budgeting for outcomes' ranking system went out the door when the final spending decisions were made."

This year, the report says, the administration should make "a meaningful effort to involve citizens" in setting priorities, and above all it should involve the council at each step of the process.


It also says the council should start assessing the performance of key departments and the revenue outlook for 2010 months before it receives the final budget recommendations.

I am very thankful for this report. If you followed last year's budget "negotiations" even a little bit you saw what I witnessed actually sitting in Council chambers. That process made an absolute mockery of municipal government. Poor Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, Chair of the budget committee, looked like she was going to hang herself by the end of that process. The way it worked was that the Mayor proposed a budget and then Council had about ten or twenty working days to analyze that spending via the testimony of different department heads before they were more-or-less expected to provide a rubber stamp.

It is the Mayor's job to prepare and propose a budget. That's all fine and dandy and shouldn't change just because this Mayor isn't particularly good at it. The problem with the process was Council's inability to effectively vet the various proposals. Though one issue is that the Council only has about a month to look it over, it would appear to me that simply moving forward the Mayor's submission deadline to give Council more time doesn't do enough to address the meat of the matter.

Council needs to be able to get deeper into the progress of city departments over the course of the year. If Council is performing quarterly audits of every city department in which they're really getting into the nitty gritty of what we're getting for our money, I haven't noticed. If Council effectively exercised their oversight powers on a regular established schedule, the 3rd Quarter September evaluation would perfectly segue into the budget process and would make the testimony of department heads during those negotiations less hurried and sensational. As it is, the budget hearings appear to be the only forum Council members have to investigate public and private allegations of waste or incompetence from various departments. This is what made this past year's budget negotiations so contentious and counterproductive.

If Council was regularly evaluating department performance, the ineffective budget process we have now wouldn't be nearly as bad because it would be much clearer which programs are working and which are not going into negotiations. Mayors would be less likely to ramrod bad spending into the budget because Council oversight would have already exposed the waste in the preceding months. Reasonably good Mayors, even average Mayors would naturally adopt IG Odom's suggestions of inclusion and discussion in the budget but this Council needed to be more effective in terms of providing public oversight year-round to safeguard against this particular horrible Mayor. That's not to call out this particular Council or the members that comprise it. I imagine that Council has never really established effective oversight systems. I actually think this Council is capable of starting to institute those kinds of reforms. The budget process is a great place to start and I'd like to salute Cynthia Hedge-Morrell for calling on the IG office to supply this initial advice.

I think we citizens are going to need to get real about how much we compensate our Councilors as well. It's a full time job that requires incredible dedication and expertise. But they make peanuts, certainly not enough to support a family unless they're already totally loaded. I think their salaries should double. Immediately. The quality of your choices each election day will be much better. I'm tellin' ya.


Nagin spokesman James Ross' response to the IG's report was insulting, off-base, and tone-deaf. I don't think I have a shred of sympathy left for this administration or anyone still associated with it after all this time. They're scorching the earth and salting it for good measure.

James Ross, a Nagin spokesman, said Friday that the administration "has not had an opportunity to read" the 10-page report "and therefore is unable to respond to it with great specificity."

But he said it was "unfortunate that the office of the inspector general has failed to take an opportunity to herald the vision, best practices and commitment of the (administration) to look beyond the challenges of this recovery and implement an open, transparent budget process that this city government has never had before."

Ross said the administration in fact "utilized the information from community meetings hosted by the mayor to serve as guiding points" in creating the 2009 budget. "Hundreds of New Orleans citizens from every walk of life were part of these meetings," he said.

No public announcement of such meetings was made at the time.

Wouldn't a much more effective response be something along the lines of:

"The Mayor's reforms to the budget process were groundbreaking but clearly more work needs to be done. The Mayor has read every page of the report and would like to thank the IG for his suggestions. He will take them under advisement as he makes tweaks for this next and last budget."

But no, Ross couldn't help but dump more gasoline onto already fallow fields.


Anonymous said...

Two words: City Manager.

We need a city inventory, and we need a thorough listing, vetting and consolidation of the 142 or so independent city entities that IG Cerasoli use to write about.

That requires a charter change.

Please get the ball rolling. That is the ONLY solution.

Even the most ethical, or pretending or wanting to be ethical, mayors would be swamped by this system designed for complete lack of accountability.

I mean, really, has it ever been different since Maestri, just with varying degrees of incompetence and thievery?

E said...

You'll have to sell me on a City Manager. I'm not convinced.