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I emailed Councilwoman Liz Brown about her aborted comments during the January 13th City Council meeting. The following is based on her response to my email.
As you may remember, Councilwoman Brown spent much time scrutinizing the 2009 City of Fort Wayne Budget during last year’s budget hearings. She was the driving force behind the final cuts which resulted in $2.5 million being cut from the City’s submitted “flat” budget. The reason for this drive was HB 1001 and it’s property tax caps and circuit breaks which will decrease property tax revenues for the City.
While she admittedly started off with the wrong numbers, Brown’s main point then became lost in the shuffle. Councilwoman Brown wants to know exactly how much the Parking Enforcement Department (PED) to operate. The figures that City Clerk Kennedy provided to Council members, show that since 2004, the department has shown a positive balance of not less than $114,000 annually after expenditures. The City Council does not scrutinize, in detail, the PED budget because it is fee-supported and they only examine those budgets supported by property taxes. But do these numbers accurately reflect the true costs of the department?
The problem is accounting practices. One example: the PED sends out notices on delinquent unpaid tickets. However, an examination of the department’s budget reveals no line item for postage. Postage is probably paid from the City Clerk’s budget, which is property tax supported, but again, there is no clear indication of this. For me, this raises a question – Is spending property taxes for something that should come out of the very fees it will raise, proper?
When the City Clerk’s office goes to court over the various ordinance violations it oversees, the Law Department sends someone to court once a week to defend the City’s position/interests. The Law Department, however, does not track any of their activities in court on behalf of the Clerk or any other City department. If it did, then perhaps the Law Department’s budget could be offset by charging the appropriate department the appropriate dollar amount for staff’s time.
Consider how the City handles it’s gas expenditures. The Fleet Department purchases all fuel for City vehicles and then charges each department for it’s use. Each City department has a line item in it’s budget for fuel expenditures.
The potential problem with this type of accounting change (examining each department and defining items more clearly) is that it will create a bit more work for employees, not much mind you, but a bit more. The benefits, however, should far outweigh problems created as it will give a truer picture of what each department is actually doing.
From her email:
“I know that the PED is not property tax supported so we don’t look at their budget, and they are cash positive – but, I wonder how much. Their budget has gone up about 25% since 2004. They have written about the same amount of tickets and from the dollars outstanding according to the amnesty. I don’t think collections have improved significantly, so the net to the city has gone down since 2004. I guess I would just like us to evaluate the worth of writing tickets/overdue fines (because meters are de minimis, meaning they do not provide the City with significant revenue.) to the tune of over $600,000 if most of the money just goes back to cover dept expenses. I think it could be a better revenue producer, but I also think that the parking group that meets once a month in the Grand Wayne, (comprised of many downtown stakeholders) would like to see a more comprehensive mission behind our parking policies.”
There is also the separate debate about enforcement issues. Councilwoman Brown feels the City needs to explore their enforcement policies and the ordinances that set them. After all, if you’re going to have an amnesty, the only way it will truly work is if you take it seriously and prosecute scofflaws. If you haven’t been prosecuting scofflaws (which to an extent is the City’s case), then you need to toughen your enforcement approach. This will then give people the incentive to take advantage of the amnesty or it won’t be as successful as possible.
Regardless, this is exactly the type of debate that needs to happen in Council. I also think that Councilwoman Brown deserves kudos for scrutinizing all aspects of matters that come before council. Too often, over the years, City Council has been too quick and willing to rubber-stamp whatever the Administration puts before them. That offers little incentive to the Administration to examine practices and ideas to determine if they really are “best practices.” It also can end up doing a huge disservice to taxpayers whose hard work and sometimes sacrifice support this type of thinking. She proves the point that there is no such thing as a “no-brainer” when it comes to government matters.