City employees are stonewalling the citizen-based “Budget Advisory Board”.
The Board is unable to make recommendations to the Commission on how to reduce the Budget.
The stonewalling actions appear to be driven by City Manager Gretsas.
Mayor Seiler, (by not terminating Gretsas last year), has made it more difficult for this and other Boards to do their jobs and is jeopardizing the financial health of this City for years to come.
Our new City Budget needs to be provided to the Commission (by our City Manager) in July and approved in September. It should be in the active development phase right now. What programs are going to be cut? By how much? Are property taxes or fees going to be raised? How much lower is the revenue forecast going to be this year?
I attended this week’s Budget Advisory Board; a group of ten volunteers from Fort Lauderdale who advise the City Commission on matters relating to the budget. I wanted to see what they are doing to help prepare and educate the Mayor and Commissioners on this all-important matter this fall.
The stated purpose of the Budget Advisory Board is: “To Provide the City with input regarding the taxpayers’ perspective in the development of the annual operating budget; to review projections and estimates from the City Manager regarding revenues and expenditures for the upcoming fiscal year; to advise the City Commission on service levels and priorities and fiscal solvency; and to submit recommendations to the City Commission no later than August 15 of each year regarding a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.”
This Board has an important role in helping to shape the budget before final approval by the Commission. It also means they need to interact with various City Departments and the City Manager to collect the necessary fiscal data in order to provide sound advice (from the taxpayer’s perspective) to the Mayor and Commission.
In the past, this Board has been largely ignored by previous Commissions. Our new Commission, sworn in last year, indicated they would pay more attention to the hundreds of volunteers who serve on the 37 Boards and Committees that make up an integral part or our City Government. And by most resident’s opinions, they have done just that. And that is good.
But what was disappointing to me this week was seeing the interaction between Advisory Board members who are asking for fiscal information, and City employees who are supposed to be providing it. The Board members were being “stonewalled”.
The interaction went like this between members of Park and Recreation and the Budget Advisory Board. (This is an abbreviated form of what took place):
Board: “Can the City save money by combining the services of your Department with this other City Department?”
City Employee response: “We’re looking in to that now.”
Board: “How much can we save if we were to outsource this function of your Department?”
City Employee response: “We’re studying that now and will get back to you.”
Board: (Posed another question)
City employee response: “We’re talking to that person now”
Another Board question and the response from the City employee: “We’re working on that issue…”
This type of “passive obstruction” went on for more than 30 minutes, with the Board looking for ways to cut costs and improve efficiency and the Department refusing to provide much meaningful data. When asked point blank by one Board member: “What is your Department doing to prepare for budget reductions this fall? What cuts will your Department have to make if your budget is cut by 15% or 20%?”
The reply? “The City Manager hasn’t asked us to make those types of plans.”
And therein lies the problem. City Manager George Gretsas. He has apparently provided no instructions to City Departments to prepare for worse case scenarios for the fall. His mode of operation is the same as in years past: do nothing on the budget, keep things secret, then propose his budget at the last minute, bypassing the Budget Advisory Board and giving the Commission little opportunity to make proper adjustments, based on the needs of the City, the taxpayer, and economic realities.
An even more glaring example of obstruction was a conversation between several board members and Shonda Singleton-Taylor, the Acting Director of the City’s Office of Management and Budget. There were questions about what made up a $12.4 million-dollar line item in the General Fund, simply entitled “Other General Government”. It’s a lot of money to be categorized in such a vague, slushy term..
Ms Singleton-Taylor throughout this meeting had a sullen look on her face, rolled her eyes, sighed a lot and gave the impression that she would rather be someplace else. She is supposed to be one of the key City employees who helps the Advisory Board understand budgetary issues.
Question by a Board member: “Can you tell us what makes up the $12.4 million in this line item?”
Ms Singleton-Taylor: “Well I think some of it is Health Insurance costs, probably some of it is also training class reimbursement, I think part of it is (mumble)…”
Board member: “Don’t you have the City’s Budget with you so we can look at this in greater detail”?
Ms Singleton-Taylor: “No, I didn’t bring it with me”.
Board member: “Well, phrases like “I think” and “probably” don’t help us understand what’s in that number. I’d like to see a detailed written report of what makes up that number”.
Ms Singleton-Taylor, indignantly: “Why? I just gave you that information”.
Now, maybe Ms Singleton-Taylor is totally qualified and competent in her job. Maybe she was just having a bad day. But if someone in my company regularly displayed that type of arrogant attitude toward anyone, (especially toward someone who is paying her salary), she would be fired on the spot. I would prefer to think that she is simply getting her obstructionist attitude from George Gretsas. Whether that’s the case or not, the attitude she displayed is a “slap in the face” to other hard working employees who actually want to do their job well at City Hall.
I spoke to one board member after the meeting and asked if this type of attitude and behavior has happened before. “It’s typical.” The Department Heads apparently withhold information; they fear the risk of having their departments reduced in size.”
Another board member commented: “We’ve been working for over a year to try to implement a Quality Management Program that would require each Department Head to state their specific goals, & define measureable criteria for each goal. This would help us determine the effectiveness of a Department’s programs. The City Manager has been putting up roadblocks to this for months.”
Gretsas has been City Manager here for almost 6 years. To not have even this most basic performance management tool in place is deplorable. How can we ever make knowledgable adjustments to our budget without this? Gretsas’ expected departure in July, coming days after his final budget presentation to the Commission can’t happen soon enough. But he will leave with Departments, the Commission (and supposedly an interim City Manager) scrambling, unprepared, to try to have a proper budget in place 8 weeks later.
Mayor Seiler, it’s unfortunate that you’ve kept Gretsas as City Manager when you should have fired him over a year ago. It’s unfortunate when you said you would institute a “zero-based” budget last year, but you didn’t. It’s unfortunate that you’ve jeopardized the economic future of our City by using up our Budget reserves and by continuing to hand out salary increases to City employees who are already overpaid. You’ve been silent far too long on who is going to replace Gretsas, to restore fiscal responsibility to our City. You haven’t even proposed a transition process for a new City Manager, and he’s supposedly leaving in 60 days. Your silence is unfortunately interpreted by many as not caring about Fort Lauderdale (or else it’s “back room wheeling and dealing” which is illegal).
Jack, the discrepancies between what you say (versus what you do) appear to many that you seem to be another career politician, more interested in your own political future than the welfare of the people you supposedly serve. When are you going to change?