By Jeff Miller and Dan Carson
Last February, Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning mused on the city’s serious fiscal problems and controversies, and suggested a solution. “Maybe it’s time to convene a citizen-based Budget Advisory Commission to turn over every rock looking for spare change that could get us out of this mess,” he opined in a column titled, “Thorough Review of City Finances In Order.”
Maybe he was unaware of the longstanding existence of the city Finance and Budget Commission. Or maybe he was just offering a playful critique of our work. Either way, he raised a legitimate concern that this city needed a more active and engaged city commission to help find budget solutions and to caution against unwise expenditure of taxpayer funds.
As, respectively, the chair and vice chair of that commission, we wanted to alert you and Davis citizens to our recent efforts–taken in coordination with the Davis City Council and city staff–to energize our commission, better define and organize our activities, and provide more comprehensive and careful scrutiny of city finances. We have a lot of work to do to improve our effectiveness and relevance, but our six commissioners have been trying hard to represent the concerns of Davis taxpayers and citizens who want their dollars used frugally and effectively. Many Davis citizens don’t have the time to delve into the details of city finances every quarter, but want the assurance that an independent party is reviewing the details.
After soul-searching discussions with the council and city management about the role of our commission, including a joint public workshop, we adopted a resolution in May (subject as always to discussion with the City Council) creating a system of commission subcommittees, and assigned specific tasks to each.
Because of our belief that the key to building citizen trust in government is accountability and transparency in city finances, the first subcommittee we created will focus on accomplishing those goals. Specifically, our resolution directed this first panel to draft a new and updated mission statement for the commission to submit to the City Council for its consideration.
It also directed this same subcommittee to work to foster the development of a new city accounting system that would make it easier to understand how the city is spending its limited resources. We believe an improved accounting system could allow city staff to produce the budget and related documents at less time and expense and give Davis policymakers and average citizens the tools they need to analyze city spending and revenue trends and identify potential budget solutions.
We also want to analyze key components of city finances in a systematic way over time–areas such as employee pensions and health benefits, major departments such as police and fire, and so on–to better predict what must be budgeted for these purposes and to develop new budget solutions. For this reason, we created a second subcommittee that intends to develop and initiate a process for a zero-based or similar review of selected city expenditure areas. The main idea is to go beyond a review of the most recent marginal changes in city programs that are proposed each year in the budget process to gain a more in-depth understanding of core city programs and how they might be reformed or constrained.
This city stands at a crossroads in deciding how best to tackle the backlog of deferred maintenance and infrastructure needed to continue the effective delivery of public services to city residents. Accordingly, we created a third subcommittee that has been directed to examine the projects for these purposes identified by city staff and to review and to comment upon a plan that we anticipate city staff will develop to address and finance higher-priority projects. We stand ready to work with city management, the City Council, and the other relevant city commissions who oversee infrastructure systems in ensuring that the city takes a fiscally prudent approach to this complex undertaking.
As we complete some of these tasks, there are additional projects we plan to undertake. Some City Council members have encouraged us to help model the potential costs and benefits to the city of various pending economic development proposals, such as the “innovation” business parks, the Gateway/Nishi project, and the new convention center and hotel complex. We also look forward to examining ways to use available assets to enhance the city’s fiscal situation, such as through the sale or lease of city property or the operation of concessions or franchises with private-sector partners.
We are already moving from discussions of commission process to action. We peppered city staff with a lot of questions about the justification of city expenditures and other budget assumptions during the 2014-15 budget process. Prior to the adoption of that budget plan, we reviewed and successfully advocated for City Council adoption of $1.2 million in additional budget cuts proposed by the city manager to help erase a $5 million structural budget shortfall. In July, we asked city staff to prepare a multi-year accounting of the outcome and status of over $80 million in capital outlay projects that were proposed by City staff and approved by City Council in recent years because that detail is not included in the annual budget report.
We recognize that our authority as a commission is limited. We are an advisory body, not a decision-maker. We are dependent in many cases on the availability of limited staff resources to get answers to complex questions. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that our new subcommittee structure will provide us the flexibility and decision-making structure to give the citizens of Davis the greater scrutiny of the use of their tax dollars that they deserve.
Please help us succeed in our work. We welcome public comments at our meetings, usually held the second Monday of each month at 7 pm in the conference room in the back of the City Council chambers. We are next scheduled to meet on September 8. And, if you have the qualifications to help with these tasks and are a Davis citizen age 18 or older, there is still time for you to apply for one of the two current vacancies on the commission before this Friday’s deadline. (A link to information about the city’s commission application process can be found here.)
Jeff Miller became chair of the Finance and Budget Commission this year and has served on the panel since 2009. Dan Carson was appointed to the commission in January and is now vice chairman.