Posted Under: City Employee Salaries,Ft Lauderdale City Budget Issues,Important Issues for Fort Lauderdale,Issues pertaining to the City Manager,Neighborhood Issues
“It’s like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. The new Fort Lauderdale Budget….
I was unable to personally attend the 2009-2010 Fort Lauderdale budget hearing at the Commission Chambers last night, but I was able to watch it on our local cable channel. What I witnessed was simply painful and sad. “It was like watching the crew on the Titanic re-arranging the deck chairs after the ship struck the iceberg”, one attendee mentioned to me afterward.
Last night’s budget discussion (or lack of discussion) from our new Mayor and Commission show that, once again, the Fort Lauderdale voter and resident will be paying for the laziness of our Commissioners and the continued spending addiction of George Gretsas, our City Manager.
For those of you with a short memory, the previous Commission had allowed Gretsas to grow the budget at over 10% per year from the time he arrived here, an unsustainable rate of growth for any city. This “spending addiction” of Gretsas was possible because of the windfall amounts of revenue that came in to city coffers due to the dramatic increase in the value of properties from 2003 to 2007. Budgets were set based on how much revenue the City Manager could get, NOT on what the actual cost to provide services should be. Rather than lower the tax rate burden to residents, Gretsas allocated every dime he could get his hands on. As of last year, our City’s budget was TWICE the size of other municipalities with the same population as ours.
So this year, one of the campaign pledges I repeatedly heard from Mayoral Candidate Jack Seiler and others running for their respective Commission seats was the need to establish financial accountability & the need to establish “zero based budgeting”, in order to reign in the city’s out of control budget (having grown from $345M to $605M in just 5 short years) .
I have said all along that trying to establish a zero based budgeting model here in Ft Lauderdale won’t work. (Asking City Department Heads to justify why they need to get the same amount of money as last year is like asking children to justify why they need candy. You’ll get all kinds of plausible explanations.) And last night I was proven right. Rather than a “zero-based” budget, Gretsas introduced essentially the same budget as last year and the Commission tentatively approved it, hook, line and sinker. Folks, there is nothing “zero-based” about this budget, except for the fact that there are way too many zeros in it. Even our City Auditor, John Herbst, states that this is not a zero-based budget. Why is our Commission accepting it as such?
Now in all fairness, not all of the blame can rest with our new Commissioners. Gretsas employed a common political tactic, which is to overwhelm the reader with data and charts, (much of it meaningless to the central concept of budget reform), and to provide this information to Commissioners at the last possible moment so they cannot fully understand what they are reviewing. This places the Mayor and Commissioners in the middle of a budgetary “jungle”, unable to understand the entire budgetary picture; instead they end up focusing only on what is at hand, and hack away at that.
This explains why last night, an inordinate amount of time was spent discussing certain unfilled positions, and whether the projected revenue for “red light runners” in the budget should be there. Valid points, but the significance of these amounts ($2-5 Million) represents nothing more than a rounding error in this bloated $602M budget. More appropriate questions that could have been asked by Commissioners prior to last night’s hearing should have been along these lines:
“Why is our City’s budget twice the size of other cities with the same population?”
“What should the appropriate amount of city spending be for our city of 170,000 residents?”
“Why, if we provided basic services to 180,000 residents for $345M five years ago, is it costing us almost twice that amount now?”
“Why are we still paying out “longevity pay” to City employees?”
“Why (if this is a “zero-based” budget), are there over $142M in carry forwards”? (These are unused departmental funds that are simply carried over from one year to the next.)
“Why do we have paid staff totaling 2,600 employees, when other cities our size on average have paid staff totaling just 1,600 employees?”
“Are you expecting taxpayers to fund another 5% to 10% pay raise to City employees this year with this budget, in light of the current economy?”
Challenging the City staff and asking these types of questions about the proposed budget in general could have started us down the road to making serious and needed cuts (on the order of $50M to $150M). Instead, the Commissioners, seemingly wringing their hands & knowing that the economic future of our City is in peril, nonetheless just accepted the bloated budget as given to them by the spending-addicted Gretsas, then congratulated themselves and city staff “for a job well-done”. All the wasteful spending that has occurred in the past will continue.
In conclusion, it appears that our current Commission is content to be “spoon-fed” by the City Manager, just as the last Commission was. This will most likely mean that for the next 3 years, our residents will continue to have apathetic elected officials, our city will remain visionless and taxpayers will have to dig deeper in their pockets to continue to fund the wasteful spending of our City Manager. It’s a shame. We deserve better.
Wednesday, September 23rd at 7pm in the Commission Chambers will be the last chance you have to voice your opinion on this matter. That will be when the Commission will most likely put their final stamp of approval on this mess. If you the voter and taxpayer don’t want this bloated budget to be approved, you better make yourself heard at that meeting, or via email or calls to your Mayor and Commissioner (954-828-5003). If you don’t, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Let me try to end on a high note. Thank you to Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom who, alone among the Commissioners last night, raised the specter of the unfunded pension liability that Fort Lauderdale taxpayers are saddled with: over $325 Million dollars! This is money that you, the taxpayer will be required to pay to retiring city employees so that they can live in a lifestyle that most of us will never see. (Ex-Police Chief and Commissioner Roberts, as an example, is receiving over $100K per year as a retirement payout from you, the taxpayer). This huge liability is not even currently being shown in the budget. Charlotte brought this up along with the need to establish long term 2-5 year budget projections, something that has been needed for a long time.
Thank you, Commissioner Rodstrom! I wish that the rest of our Commission understood their responsibility to challenge the staff and the City Manager, instead of blindly & obediently following his recommendations.
Mark my words: Next year at this time when we are facing a $50M-100M shortfall (due to Gretsas’ continued out-of-control spending), our Commissioners are going to wish they could have a “do-over” with this budget! It will be too late.