Transparancy and Accountability Decision by Council Tonight

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Transparancy & AccountabilityTonight presents an opportunity for the Davis City Council to take a proactive step toward improved transparency and accountability in our financial reporting of community programs.  Item 8 of tonight’s agenda is for the Funding Agreement with the Yolo Habitat Conservancy (YHC).

Staff’s recommendation on this item is an example of a non-transparent approach to funding and accounting for a city program. If the Yolo Habitat Conservancy is worthy of Davis’ support, and worthy of the investment of Davis taxpayer dollars, then why not create its own transparent funding and accounting in the city’s budget? Why co-mingle and bury the YHC funding dollars in the Open Space Fund as proposed by staff?  The Finance and Budget Commission (FBC) has been working very hard to get the city to stop the cross use of funds for differing purposes.  This appears to be a situation where the $200,000 at aside each year for the YHC should be accounted for in its own General Ledger account.  That would be the transparent thing to do.

Many Davis residents (but not all) believe the Yolo Habitat Conservancy is a very worthy endeavor. However, it has a focus and goal that differs from the focus and goal of the voter-approved Measure O Open Space Protection tax. Because of those differences, it is all the more important that we avoid perpetuating the “its in there somewhere” approach to accounting.  The Finance and Budget Commission presented to city council on June 15, 2015, thirteen recommendations that they believed would increase the transparency and accountability contained in the city budget (those 13 recommendations appear below). Recommendation 8 presents the council with an opportunity to embrace the spirit of those Finance and Budget Commission transparency and accountability recommendations.

By having these two separate programs/endeavors, each have their own free-standing, transparent accounting in the city’s budget, and we the people can hold ourselves accountable for spending our money wisely and achieving the valuable goals that led us to support these respective worthy endeavors.

City council has an opportunity tonight to vote for transparency and accountability … and in the process take a step away from the “its in there somewhere” approach to accounting.

Coincidentally, council will, in Item 6 tonight, be discussing a potential General Utility User Tax Measure “to address unfunded needs, including, but not limited to, capital needs such road maintenance, bicycle paths/trails, and other priority capital projects.”  If the council wants the citizens to support such an additional tax, then meaningful tangible progress toward increased transparency and accountability throughout City finances is essential.  Failure to make that meaningful tangible progress will feed the flames of distrust that currently exist in the hearts and minds of a vast number of Davis residents . . . distrust that will surely be the reason for “no” votes at the polls when the General Utility User Tax Measure is put to a vote of the people.

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Finance and Budget Commission Purpose and Functions

Purpose

The Davis Finance and Budget Commission is to focus on an independent analysis of technical, financial and budgeting issues.
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Functions of the Commission

  • Providing transparency of City Finances to the citizens of Davis.
  • Reviewing the spending outlined in the city budget in order to advise the Public that City Council/City Management is accountable for spending taxpayer dollars effectively and in keeping with important city priorities.
  • Searching for and advising actions that could maximize city revenues and reduce governmental costs and help ensure municipal fiscal stability.
  • Providing recommendations/special studies on financial and economic issues to the City Council.

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Summary of Finance and Budget Commission discussion of the Budget

This summary was prepared by Jeff Miller and Dan Carson at the request of the commission:

The commission discussed a broad range of technical and strategic budget issues. City staff members were able to address many of the questions asked by commissioners, and we appreciate their help. The list below highlights significant issues that we believe warrant further consideration by the City Council in its own budget deliberations:

1.  — The budget plan should be adjusted to reflect a $397,000 payment expected June 23 from the State Controller’s Office as reimbursement for past claims filed by the city for carrying out various state-mandated programs. Only $78,000 was previously assumed from this source in the city budget. Staff indicated these monies could offset a potential 2014-15 gap in property tax collections discussed below.

2. — We are in agreement with city staff that two critical pieces of information are needed to determine if the city budget should assume more property tax revenues in the budget plan. First, the May distribution of property taxes is (according to the June 16 staff report) $200,000 below expectations. City staff is investigating these numbers with the county to determine if they will change between now and the end of 2014-15. Second, the Yolo County Assessor has not yet released the 2015-16 property tax assessment roll, which greatly affects the city’s future property tax receipts. The issue should be revisited later this year when more is known.

3. — The assumption in the budget of just 1% growth in sales tax revenues in 2015-16 appears low, given the city’s past growth in sales tax-related activity and economic trends. City staff has agreed to further discuss its sales tax assumptions with its consultant. The council should consider in the range of 4% to 5% growth for 2015-16.

4. — City staff indicates that none of the money set aside in a $1.2 million “litigation reserve” in 2014-15 will be spent. We believe these monies should be recognized in the budget plan as being available for other purposes. City staff is suggesting part of the money could be used to help address a $1.5 million deficit in funding for certain employee benefits, which would reduce future budgeted costs for these purposes.

5. — What had been a $1.6 million balance in the city Cable TV Fund as of 2013-14 is starting to be used for city infrastructure projects. The balance is expected to be $375,000 lower by the end of 2015-16. We recommend the council determine later this year how surplus monies in the fund should be put to work, and that the balances in other special funds be examined to see if they are appropriate.

6. — While work has continued on developing a new information technology project we believe the project should be accelerated so that it would, among other things, allow better accounting and management of city spending.

7. — Although tracking of capital projects in the new budget presentation has improved, there are concerns that monies for the actual implementation of the project has not been budgeted or reflected in the five year fiscal forecast. As part of our continuing efforts to implement our new mission statement we believe we need a reporting system that can map the percentage of a particular capital project that is complete against the monies spent to that point on that project. The reporting should also include information on a completed projects adopted budget versus actual total dollars spent on the project, and a comparison of the project timeline for each project versus its actual timeline.

8. — The commission requested information on salary cost by employee in the Department of Public Works to determine why some of these costs seem high.

9. — Additional information was sought from staff regarding the $315,000 budgeted for support within the RDA Successor Agency budget.

10. — The commission expressed interest in the potential for implementing “lean management” principles to reduce budgeted costs. (By one definition, lean management seeks to eliminate any waste of time, effort or money by identifying each step in a business process and then revising or cutting out steps that do not create value.) For example, costs for purchases of printers and copying might be reduced by new work rules and procedures.

11. — The commission inquired about what the city’s goals are in the pending negotiations with employee associations, and whether under current trends average compensation costs are being contained.

12. — The commission expressed interest in moving toward fuller use of scenario analysis in the consideration of the budget plan. For example, scenarios could be developed to spell out what additional spending items would be prioritized in the event that revenues were better than expected, as well as what reductions should be implemented in the event of an unanticipated downturn in city finances.

13. — The commission expressed interest in modifying the budget projections in the future to display information pertaining to long term unfunded/accrued liabilities, such as personnel or deferred maintenance costs not covered within budgeted expenditures.

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About The Author

Matt Williams has been a resident of Davis/El Macero since 1998. Matt is a past member of the City's Utilities Commission, as well as a former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), former member of the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC), former member of the Broadband Advisory Task Force (BATF), as well as Treasurer of Davis Community Network (DCN). He is a past Treasurer of the Senior Citizens of Davis, and past member of the Finance Committee of the Davis Art Center, the Editorial Board of the Davis Vanguard, Yolo County's South Davis General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, the Davis School District's 7-11 Committee for Nugget Fields, the Yolo County Health Council and the City of Davis Water Advisory Committee and Natural Resources Commission. His undergraduate degree is from Cornell University and his MBA is from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent over 30 years planning, developing, delivering and leading bottom-line focused strategies in the management of healthcare practice, healthcare finance, and healthcare technology, as well municipal finance.

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One thought on “Transparancy and Accountability Decision by Council Tonight”

  1. #me

    What about the $3,000,000+ payment to Yolo County under the pass through agreement? How about some transparency there?

    Is it still being made? If so, how much is it?

    This was a $70-80,000,000 obligation just a few years ago – enough to pay for three sports parks – so what is/has the City Council doing/done with respect to this obligation?

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