Council wrangling delays 2013 budget

June 11, 2012

BY KAREN RILEY —Repeated delays, unavailable documents, last-minute dollar estimates and a significant clerical mistake marked this year’s budget cycle for the city of Hyattsville.

What’s more, residents who watched the proceedings were treated to so much verbal sparring that it often seemed more like an overhyped reality show than a deliberative body

“There’s too much bickering that goes on,” said Councilmember Paul Perry (Ward 4), “[and] a lot of it isn’t necessary.”

The budget cycle began in January and was scheduled to end on April 23. But it wasn’t until May 21 that the council finally approved the $28.3 million fiscal year 2013 budget, which features $14 million in general operating expenses and $9.1 million in capital projects.

It passed with six votes. Perry and Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5) voted against it, and Timothy Hunt (Ward 3) abstained. Nicole Hinds Mofor (Ward 5) was absent, continuing what amounts to a medical leave of absence due to recent hospitalizations.

So what happened?

The budget presented to the council is called the mayor’s budget, but council members naturally want to have a say in how money is allocated because that is a key factor in driving city policy. This year, they also had to evaluate how staff is allocated, as Mayor Marc Tartaro decided to include three department reorganizations in the budget.

Among the changes: Moving responsibility for code and parking violations from the police department to a new Department of Community and Economic Development. The council had previously discussed that proposal without resolution so Tartaro decided to “set the table and put it into the budget,” in a bid to make the council address the issue.

Perry objected to the reorganization, which was a key reason for her vote against the final budget.

Another ongoing issue is the budget process itself. The budget is adopted in modules, beginning with employee benefits, and then each module is combined into a final omnibus budget where numbers might vary slightly. This is done because decisions on certain fixed expenses like employee benefits can affect how much money is left for discretionary expenditures, like capital improvements. Yet it can be a frustrating process for the council.

“All of the pieces didn’t fit” until April 23, when the capital budget was available, complained Hunt, and yet “all of a sudden it was hurry up and pass the budget.” Even then, estimates weren’t available on the University Hills street improvement project, which was important to his constituency. Given these factors, he chose to abstain.

This year’s spate of delayed and incomplete budget documents was the result of the city’s staffing woes, including the lack of a full-time city administrator, according to Councilmember David Hiles (Ward 2). “A lot was being done with a skeleton staff … resulting in getting product out later than we want.”

A key staff vacancy was the primary reason for the snafu over the police department’s budget that stalled council action late in the budget cycle. As Tartaro explained, the police department lost the staffer who ordinarily prepared the budget so the task went to a less experienced staffer.

As a result, the omnibus budget contained a different alignment of police officers per rank than the police budget approved in April. Both Police Chief Doug Holland and the Hyattsville Fraternal Order of Police protested. Tartaro ultimately resolved the issue with Holland after explaining that the staffer had mischaracterized certain police positions.

Police staffing was one reason why Frazier ultimately decided not to vote for the budget. “I had so many questions,” she said.

Underlying the short-term issues addressed during the 2013 budget cycle are starker realities. The city has managed to stay afloat due to ongoing investments and annexations but it is grappling with some big financial issues, like rising insurance costs and the specter of an unfunded mandate from retiree health benefits.

In this budget, spending will outstrip revenue by $1.4 million. The city will collect $20.8 million in revenue and $5.9 million in proceeds from bonds and leases. The difference will be paid for out of the city’s savings fund.

Tartaro says the city is undergoing the growing pains that come when a city moves from being a small to a medium-sized city. “A decade ago Hyattsville could be run like a family business ─ run out of a shoe box,” he explained. “We haven’t developed the procedures we need to make [the] transition.”

This latest budget is a start. It contains a variety of new performance metrics that will help guide city decision-making in the future.

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