Budget Workshop A Success
Tonight the City hosted a community budget workshop, designed to provide an opportunity, in a casual atmosphere, for residents and other interested parties to pick the brains of CEO Tom Hatch and other staffers on the status of our proposed municipal budget. Once again, this year it was conducted before the budget was actually approved, which means we were dealing with a work in progress.
BETTER TURNOUT, BUT STILL SPARSE
I've attended the last several of these meetings in years past. The first few times there was two other people and me - a one-to-one ratio with staffers. Last year twelve people showed up. This year there were fifteen bodies in Conference Room 1A. This is a good trend, but a frustratingly small number considering the population of our city. The staff was ready to shift into City Council Chambers if necessary - it wasn't.
The staff was represented by Hatch, Budget and Research Officer Bobby Young, consultant and Interim Finance Director Larry Hurst and Interim Communication Director, Bill Lobdell. Hatch's executive assistant, Kelly Shelton, was also in attendance.
MEDIA, SORT OF
Media was represented by Chris Prevatt of The Liberal OC blog, Brian Helvey, the gentleman who founded and runs local FM radio station, KOCI 101.5 FM.... and me.
GENIS AMONG THE REST OF US
The remainder were a mix of residents and employees. Most of those attending are "regulars" at council meetings, including former mayor Sandra Genis, who always brings a special energy to meetings.
RIGHEIMER TAKES A HEAD COUNT
As we were about to begin, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer popped into Conference Room 1A to thank us - some of us - for participating. I'm not sure he wasn't just taking a head count, since if few folks show up to these kind of events he thinks everybody else in the city supports him. He didn't stay and no other members of the city council showed up, either. That's a good thing, because their presence would have stifled conversation.
COMFORTABLE, PRODUCTIVE SETTING
This format, with 15 people sitting around a conference table, was very comfortable. There was no specific agenda, with Hatch kicking it off with a summary of where we've been with the budget and the steps it took to get to where we are today - before next Tuesday's meeting. We spent more than 3 hours in what amounted to a "brainstorming session" - discussing the budget, strategies, future plans and offering suggestions. Although it's unlikely that any of the suggestions made last night will have any impact on this year's budget, several may be folded into plans for the future. I came away feeling that the meeting was productive.
HATCH AS A BULLFIGHTER
Some pretty darn tough questions were tossed to, and at, Hatch. He answered those he could and dodged those he couldn't. In his defense, those of us in the room last night were looking for reasons some of the recent decisions made by the council had occurred - some sign of a logical process by which they had been made. In several cases there were none to be found - they were done because the council decided to do it - period.
CMPD RECOMMENDATIONS FLAWED FROM THE START
When pressed on the 125 staffing number for the Police Department - which was at odds with the recommendations of both Interim Police Chief Steve Staveley and the consultants who studied the CMPD structure, Management Partners - Hatch gave us the genesis of the number. It came from a of couple council members - unnamed - who read it in the back of last year's budget book and decided to use it as gospel. Hatch didn't shrug, but he might just as well have. Neither he nor any other staffer can tell the council what to do. They can only give their best professional advice and wait.
TOM ARNOLD LED THE DISCUSSION
Long time resident Tom Arnold, a former member of the Newport Beach Fire Department Command Staff, took the lead in many of the questions. He was persistent in asking about the methodology used to arrive at some of the decisions made by the council. He was trying to overlay his very extensive management experience on our circumstances to see if he could understand the "why" of many of these issues. Unfortunately, in almost every case that he chose to discuss, the "why" was basically "because the council wanted to do it that way". I fear my friend, Tom, left the meeting even more frustrated than the rest of us.
ABLE IS ALMOST HISTORY
One of the many items discussed was the demise of ABLE. This, again, was an issue that defies logic. It's one thing if there was absolutely no money left with which to operate this 40 year-old force multiplier, but that's not the case. There's enough in the ABLE reserves to operate it for at least a couple of years. No, we're dissolving ABLE because Jim Righeimer says there are too many helicopters in the sky over Orange County. Some are still holding out hope that some form of regional airborne law enforcement entity might still be formed, and that ABLE could get swept into it. In the meantime, Hatch is moving forward rapidly to firm up the deal with Huntington Beach to provide helicopter support on an hourly basis - $700 per hour - hopefully in time for the July 4th holiday weekend.
HATCH RE-SIGNS LOBDELL
One interesting bit of news was mentioned last night. When the discussion got around to communication Hatch told the group that Interim Communication Director Bill Lobdell's contract had been extended. Hatch committed another $50,000 to Lobdell's consultancy. We don't know the precise details, but if they were the same - $3,000 per week - just extended, that means Lobdell will be in place for another 4+ months.
THIS IS A GOOD MOVE
Personally, I think this is a great idea. His contract would have ended today. While his three month gig has not been without it's dicey moments, he's become an integral part of the information stream for our city and has been the point man on the selection of a vendor for the new web page. He's been much-maligned by more than a few people - and I've been merciless teasing him about his "inflated" fee. Folks forget, though, that a year ago we had two people working for Allan Roeder doing much of what Lobdell has been charged with. I don't recall a half year in this city where information was not only made available, but offered up on a silver platter. Certainly, Lobdell frequently delivers some bad news - but so would anyone else in that job. I'm looking forward to the new web site and hope many of the new features they've hung on the old platform will be retained.
CHANGES ON THE HORIZON
We briefly discussed the portion of the agenda that was set aside for future consideration last Tuesday - the "Preliminary Financial and Budget Policies". Because of the length of that meeting it was decided to shove this agenda item off to a date in July. Some very important and potentially controversial items were on that list, like a "minimum fund balance reserve", a "minimum cash balance" and "a percentage of General Fund Budget for Capital Expenditures", just to name a few. We hope the council will not decide any of these items need to be part of this year's budget, or we might be into September before they get one adopted. I jest - June 30th is the drop dead date.
TUESDAY IS "THE DAY"
On Tuesday Hatch and his team will present what they hope will be the final version of the 2011-2012 budget. While he didn't go into a lot of detail, Hatch did give us a little peek at the format of his recommendations planned for that night. He must have the staff report done today - or tomorrow at the latest - so the council has a chance to review it. During our meeting there was much serious speculation about just what else the council might pile onto the budget at the last minute - again. Hatch plans to present them with a series of documents that will aid them in making the final decision. I only hope that he's not sandbagged again, as was the case last Tuesday. The clock is ticking and if the council doesn't pass a budget on the 21st they will have less than 10 days to get it done before the statutory deadline of June 30th.
So, once again, I encourage each of you to take advantage of these meetings in the future. This one, above all, has been the most interesting because of its casual participative format. Next year get off the couch and attend...