Friday, July 27, 2007

More city commission 7/27

Greetings everyone.
Hopefully people will see this while we make the transition to the new blog place. This one will be easier once people get used to it.

The city commission is going over its budget, and over it and over it and over it.
This commission has more business people on it, so maybe that is why they are going over every expense with great detail.

You could say they are micro-managing the budget, but on the other hand, you want a commission that is engaged with the process. We "hired" them to be good stewards of our tax dollars and the city's business, so we shouldn't complain too much when they examine it very carefully.

There is a balance there. Previous commissions were accused of just going along with whatever the city manager wanted. This one is now being accused of being on the other extreme. Over time they will probably settle into a better balance.

Current City Manager Doug Russell is new to the city and has impressed people with his ability and management skills. His philosophy is that he is here to do the will of the commission, which is what our form of government calls for.

However, the commission does need to let him do his job.

That "conflict" can best be seen in the budgetary process. It isn't really a conflict in the most literal sense of the word. It is more of an adjustment by both Russell and the commission.

I don't think either group is right or wrong. They are not even "groups" or "sides" really. It's more just that some want to go over every item and others want to focus on the big picture and let the city manager - and other professionals - do their jobs. They are just still trying to find where the balance is that makes both "sides" most comfortable.

A great example is the police department. At the last meeting, several items were questioned, down to a $3,000 camera. (That's not all that high for a camera if you're including lenses and such.) Yea, $3,000 is a lot of money to me too, but when you're talking about a $16 million budget, it changes the perspective.

The underlying question was whether the commission should tell the cops whether they should get the camera or not. Should the commission tell the police how much money they get and let the police decide how to use it, or tell the police how to spend each dollar?

It is an interesting debate. As I said, I don't think either side is right or wrong. There is a balance and it takes time to figure out where that balance is.

I do want to commend the commission for one thing. They have held their discussions out in the open. As far as I can tell, they are not hiding much of anything. Some things are legitimately kept out of public view.

Ill admit that in the fifth hour of their meeting last Monday, I wasn't so sure I liked all the openness. :)

They have another meeting Monday, no doubt to go over budget matters again.

It will be real. It will be interesting. But will it be real interesting?



Thursday, July 19, 2007

City Commission budget 7-19-07

I have been gone for a couple of weeks and have found it hard to get started again. That's my excuse for not blogging lately, and I'm sticking to it.
We are starting to get a picture of what the "new" city commission is going to be like in Arkansas City.
They have moved the work session to Monday night. Last Monday they talked for five hours. This is where the work of the commission is really done. They hash over ideas and issues, gather information and make decisions. They don't vote there, but by watching the session a person gets a good idea of how votes are going to go.
Then there was the regular meeting Tuesday, which took only about an hour. There were no surprises because I had listened to them at length the night before. Maybe they were too tired on Tuesday. I know I was.

I was pleased to see a decent sized crowd at the meeting Tuesday. There were around 25 people that were not related to the city in some way. There were a few people there Monday night, but they were there to give the commission information.
We have been getting a few letters to the editor regarding city business lately, and I think that is good as well.

There has been some talk at work sessions about the possiblity of NOT doing the hike and bike trail in the levee in Arkansas City. The commission is doing some belt tightening and looking for ways to save money.
Most of the bike trail will be paid for by a grant, but some commissioners wonder if the money could be used in a better way. Mel Kuhn favors building softball fields instead. Scott Margolius wants to save money and build the city's financial stability before doing "extras" such as a hike and bike trail.
Mayor Dotty Smith is solidly in favor of the trail and that should help keep it safe from the budgetary axe. She sets the agenda so any motion to not do the project is going to have a tough time even getting on the floor. The other two commissioners - Joel Hockenbury and Patrck McDonald - appear to be favoring the project, but neither one has voiced a strong opinion.
If the city does not do the project it would have to turn back over $1million in grant money. Grants are important to the financial health of most cities and they are obtained through a competitive process.
The people who put together grant applications for the city say if you turn one back in, it makes it harder to "win" the grant the next time around. The city did turn one back recently, which would have helped build softball fields.

It's no secret that I am a big fan and proponent of the hike and bike trail. If you are a fan of the trail, you should let the commission know. The two rivers in Arkansas City are a tremendous resource and are being wasted. That's a subject for another blog. It's best I don't get started on that now.

I am all for saving money - and lowering taxes - but I do not believe that saving money should be the only goal of the commission.

They really are trying to save money. The current proposed budget does not call for a tax increase. it keeps everything pretty much at the current level. Monday they were going over the figures carefully and they are hoping to actually lower the tax rate. The reduction would be small, but still it would be a reduction.
They might have been micro-managing a bit, going down the level of $200 or $300 expenses while dealing with a $16 million budget. Even so, they really are trying to save us money by lowering taxes.
There is a good policy question.
Should the city focus on only core services - water, sewer, fire, police - or should it also try to deal with quality of life issues even if it means spending more money?
Something to think about.

That's all for now.


James Jordan