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Thursday, April 20, 2006 | Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget proposal for the coming year won high praise upon its initial release for being more easily navigable than the tomes presented in past budget seasons, but members of the public and the City Council said Wednesday that they are frustrated with the lack of detail included.
While campaigning last fall, Sanders promised that he would deliver a budget proposal that fit into one volume instead of the plans past city managers have presented over the years, which sprawl over many volumes. Consolidating the spending plan would make the budget easier to use and “more transparent,” Sanders said.
But city leaders and citizens appeared worried at Wednesday’s budget committee meeting that style overruled substance.
“There’s some information I just need to have to make an informed decision,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye, who grills administrators on details more often than other council members.
Just two days earlier, she complimented Sanders for presenting a concise budget, as did other council members.
Even the mayor’s top budget aide says the glossy, photo-laden 85-page booklet the Sanders administration distributed last week could have been a little heavier on the numbers.
“We may have made it too concise,” Chief Financial Officer Jay Goldstone said.
Past financial managers were constantly attacked during the past year of reform at City Hall, as the crushing weight of a mounting pension deficit and multiple probes into the city’s fiscal dealings cast a shadow of doubt over city government.
The city’s switch to a strong-mayor form of government this year meant that an elected official would be responsible for the putting together a sound budget, and Sanders made financial reform the hallmark of his candidacy last fall.
Goldstone said he has received many compliments about the proposal, but acknowledged that a flood of questions have come pouring in since Friday’s release of Sanders’ spending proposal for the coming year, which begins July 1.
“We always expected that we would come back with supplemental information, regardless if the council ever asked for it,” Goldstone said.
Hired in January, Goldstone said his relatively short amount of time has been spent learning the city’s books and rearranging the numbers in the best way he could, given his time constraints.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, several council members expressed concern, confusion and a heap of questions about the next year’s financial forecast.
“Knowing that I had 13 weeks from start to finish … I said, ‘let’s put out as lean a document as we could by the deadline and the recognize that we had time to provide more before the council made its ultimate decisions,” Goldstone said.
Andrea Tevlin, the council’s independent budget analyst, said she would reserve comment about the proposal until she filed a preliminary analysis, which is due out next Friday. The IBA will release a second, more comprehensive report on May 19.
Council members said they wanted more specific information on what certain departments listed in the budget included.
For example, one of the largest line-item expenditures in the budget is the “citywide program expenditure,” a section of the budget totaling $374 million. That is the money that will be available if the mayor’s plan to borrow cash to infuse into the beleaguered pension fund is enacted.
University Heights resident Mel Shapiro noted that there was no breakdown of the five divisions within the “general services” line-item, which have traditionally included airports, street, publishing, facilities and equipment.
“What the mayor calls ‘transparency,’ I call ‘hiding,’” Shapiro said.
Frye said she had trouble locating the golf enterprise fund in the budget, which was located under the “park & recreation” special revenue fund.
“One of the problems I’m having in trying to do any analysis is that we’ve changed the accounting,” Frye said.
Councilman Tony Young raised concerns that he aired several times during last year’s budget hearings: raising new revenue. Young has advocated selling land or increasing the rent at city-owned properties to raise money for park and recreation programs that he has championed.
“Clearly that should be part of this discussion of the budget,” Young said.
Goldstone reiterated Sanders’ pledge to not raise taxes or fees.
Council members were also concerned about whether the information they wanted to view would be available to them. Goldstone said the financial management information system that includes all of the data used for preparing the budget would be available to the IBA, but that security risks prevented council members or residents from accessing the information directly.
San Diego County Taxpayers Association president Lani Lutar said she is hoping that the Mayor’s Office will provide the information sought by the public.
“It’s absolutely necessary that they do that,” Lutar said.
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