City officials were already thinking about the 2011-12 city budget Tuesday, even as the Budget Review Committee members passed the 2010-11 budget, which takes effect July 1.
Mayor Ann Thane announced the formation of an ad hoc committee of city officials and community members with financial experience, which will begin meeting in August to discuss budget issues for the following year.
Alderman William Wills, D-4th Ward, said Tuesday that he would like to start working on the 2011-12 budget as soon as possible because the committee came up with some good ideas for saving money that need more time to develop. Thane said several longtime city employees and community members with financial experience are already interested in serving on the committee, which would make recommendations to the Common Council.
“The council may be less fearful of making decisions if it comes from an unbiased group,” she said.
This year’s budget process was a difficult one, as members of the Budget Review Committee, which includes the Common Council, mayor and city controller, worked to close a $1.7 million revenue gap without exceeding the city’s self-imposed 3 percent cap on annual increases in taxes and fees.
The adopted $25 million budget includes a tax rate of $14.23 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of 34 cents over last year’s rate. The budget also uses $607,033 from the city’s fund balance, leaving about $1.3 million in the pool of money unspent from previous budget years. The use of so much fund balance was not popular, but members of the Budget Review Committee could not agree on alternative solutions.
Alderwoman Julie Pierce, R-2nd Ward, said she felt the committee made the best decisions based on the information it had. She said there were a lot of good ideas brought out by the budget process but not enough time to implement them.
Alderwoman Gina DeRossi, R-3rd Ward, agreed and said the process needed to be started much earlier for the coming year. DeRossi called this year’s budget process a “highly difficult and frustrating experience,” and said she would like to see other people involved in the process, especially people with expertise in the financial field.
Thane said the way the city develops a budget is backward and unproductive.
The Budget Review Committee was created through a change to the City Charter during the previous administration. The city’s department heads submit their own spending proposals, which are compiled by the city controller into a preliminary budget. The figures in the preliminary budget are usually high and include a hefty tax increase. The members of the Budget Review Committee are then tasked with reducing or eliminating line items to develop a budget that is within the city’s constraints.
Thane said she thinks the city should revert to the previous way of developing a budget, where the mayor and controller develop a budget that is already balanced and the Common Council makes changes from there.
The current way of developing the budget is too political, the mayor said. She also said she thinks elected officials are fearful of speaking their true feelings when they know the budget review meetings are televised. The city began airing the Budget Review Committee meetings on local cable channels this year for the first time.