“A Local Government’s Budget Is a Public Document”
By Addie Greene
Gearing up for the March 19 Ashland City Budget meeting, Budget Committee Commissioners David Runkel and Garrett Furuichi addressed a group of concerned citizens Thursday evening at the Ashland Library.
The primary objective of a budget, Runkel said, is “to ensure expenditures do not exceed revenues.” To this end he cited the use of standard procedures, citizen involvement, and promotion of efficiency and economy in the expenditure of public funds, all part of ORS 294.321.
Furuichi said he found it helpful to compare where the current budget (2017) stands with that of 2008. There was a 50% increase, or 16.77% a year, he told the audience. Personnel services increased 15.93%, he said, during a period when the inflation rate was 1.99%.
The projected 2021-2023 deficit for Parks and Recreation is $5.932 million, although that figure has been revised to a $600,000 deficit, he said.
As an example he cited the Oak Knoll Golf Course, which lost $10,000 in 2005 and $240,000 in 2017. Cumulative losses for the period were $1.7 million, he said.
An audience member questioned the Parks and Rec budget. “Parks historically has operated independently,” Furuichi said. “It has a fiduciary duty to maintain reserves, a duty to spend our money wisely.” “Fifty percent of city property taxes goes to Parks,” he added.
“We must revise the budget document to provide greater transparency,” Runkel said.
Another audience member pointed out that the city of Portland has annual salary projections.
“We are moving toward having income and expenditures side by side,” Furuichi said. “With fringe benefits rolled up, we don’t know how much is PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) liability.” His request for a break-down of fringe benefit costs was denied, but he said the city picks up the 6% employee portion of PERS.
Because the city has a self-insured health plan, Furuichi said, it is projecting a cost increase of 2% when it should be counting on a 10-20% increase. “We need a course correction,” he said. “Stop right now and reassess.”
The city’s average health care costs per employee are $22,000-$26,000, Furuichi said, with individuals having a $250 deductible and families a $750 deductible. It would save the city a lot of money, he said, to drop self-insurance and move to a company plan.
He wants a recap at the end of the year as to what was really spent—actual budget and variance.
Runkel pointed out that last year’s situation was unique because the city administrator, who also was a budget officer, was fired, and the city hired an interim finance director, who was retired and subject to PERS work limitations. “She couldn’t attend Budget Committee meetings because she would put in too many hours,” Runkel said.
Another audience member asked how the city budgets for emergencies such as floods and fires. The answer was a 3% line item labeled “contingencies.”
Another audience member complained that she asked for a Parks document detailing use of the Daniel Meyer pool and was told she would have to pay $254 for it. That’s a matter of public record, she said. Furuichi said Parks can charge for duplication services and advised her to go for easily accessible documents like emails.
“What influence do you have?” another citizen asked. “Zero,” Furuichi replied. “The budget law skews everything to the governing body, which can collude in groups of less than a quorum.”
All of this seems to disregard the Oregon Department of Revenue Local Budgeting Manual, which states, “The Oregon form of government requires an informed public aware of the deliberations and decisions of the governing bodies and the information upon which such decisions were made. It is the intent of ORS 192.610 to 192.690 that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”
Former City Councillor Cate Hartzell advised anyone concerned about the budget process to “host a forum and invite city staff.” That, at least, will continue the conversation.
Watch for the announcement of the citizens of the budget committee next meeting!