Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Apparently the Administration is Confident

OK so as a blogger the last few months have been spotty for me but I am hoping that this snow actually gave me some time to pull ahead of the curve a little and I will again start blogging on the regular.

Let us start up again with last Tuesday night’s hearing on the stormwater fee.  I watched all of it live (from the comfort of my couch) and was frankly amazed at the abysmal number of people the County Executive managed to organize to support his proposal, even after offering up beer at a pre-hearing “rally” at Kelsey’s.

Anyway, truth be told, everything one needed to know and understand came in the very beginning when the administration’s representative, Diane Wilson (Chief of Staff to the County Executive), testified.  What was made clear with initial questions by Councilwoman Terrasa, follow up by Councilwoman Sigaty, and finally with a question from Councilman Ball was that this is actually only secondarily an environmental issue.  The primary issue with the Executive’s proposal is poor financial management.

I am going to do a lot of paraphrasing here but if you want to see the actual event you of course can see it online.  The action starts at 1 hour 15 minutes. 

After Ms. Wilson’s perfunctory testimony Councilwoman Terrasa asks: “If you are asking us to give up this dedicated source where will the money be coming from?”  She goes on to ask, “Will you be cutting from education?  Police?  Libraries?”

Ms. Wilson, first says that budgeting is all about priorities and then, for the first (of many times) goes to her apparently predetermined fail-safe line:

This administration is confident that there will be the financial tools to support this stormwater remediation plan.

Honestly, I would have much preferred she had the guts to go with “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”  It would have had a more poetic and pop-culture feel to it, however she did keep coming back and back to this one line.  So much so that by the end you can actually here exasperated chuckles in the audience.  Let us be clear, this is not an answer to the question, but let’s keep going with the interaction.

Councilwoman Terrasa does try and cycle back to the priorities line and says “You said budgets are about priorities, what will this be prioritized above in the budget?”  At this point in the conversation Ms. Wilson had already used her catch phrase three times (in case your thinking of watching and making it a drinking game). 

After a long-winded non-save/save from Councilman Fox, Councilwoman Sigaty picks up the mantle from Councilwoman Terrasa.  While she hammers some of the same points, I want to highlight one very important point she makes.  Sigaty highlights the fact that the plan presented by the administration assumes that in Fiscal Years 18 , 19, and 20, stormwater will be paid for, in part, by what is called paygo.  Paygo is made up of money leftover from the previous year’s budget (kind of like a budget surplus).  In blog posts here and here I talked a little bit about how and why the use of one-time funds for regular budget items is terrible budgeting.  Blogger Jamie Howard referred to it as “stunt budgeting” which is an apt phrase. 

This move is way worse.  What the Kittleman Administration is proposing essentially earmarks regular budget expenditures (or what would become regular budget expenditures under their proposal) with assumed robust surpluses two, three, and four years away.  This isn’t just inappropriate use of paygo funds; it’s inappropriate use of paygo funds they desperately hope will exist in the future. 

One last point made my Councilwoman Sigaty:  “You propose $30 million in FY20 [general obligation] G.O. bonds.[1]  Is that in addition to or as a part of our usual $90-$100 million in G.O. bonds?”  Ms. Wilson answers that it will be part of, meaning that $30 million would have to replace $30 million spent on something else.  It cannot mean anything else, no matter how confident the administration is about their financial tools.

Alright, finally Councilman Ball brings it all into focus with one overarching question: “[The administration’s] plan, when the fee is insufficient is to eliminate it and still meet this $222 million commitment without raising taxes, without cutting anything and staying within spending affordability?”

Ms. Wilson's answer, “Yes”.  Or put another way, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined”.

1 She lists them out by fiscal year:  FY17 $10 million, FY18 $19 million, FY19 $27 million, FY20 $30 million.

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