Monday, August 19, 2013

ZAP! #135: Budget Quackery

ZAP! #135

Assault Alert:    The following Citizen/Tax Payer alert is being issued due to the impending mugging and looting of your personal checking and savings account by the Irving city council and city manager.

     Yes, dear readers, it’s that time of the year again.  Your city council will be ‘retreating’ at city hall this week (Thursday, August 22-23) to polish their rubber stamps and set the wheels in motion to officially approve the 2013-14 City of Irving budget.  And why is this year’s budget different from any previous year?  Considering how the council, in symphony with the city manager, has frittered or squandered tax bucks these past years, the question answers itself.

     Of course, the 300+ page city budget document is chocked full of goals, strategic plans, pie charts, bar graphs, colored photos, maps, and heaps of verbiage that could win a Pulitzer Prize for urban fiction.  The only thing missing from the document is the personal signature of Malcolm Baldrige attesting to the fact that if he lived in Irving (and was still alive) he would approve this grandiose budget tome prepared by his personal friend, city manager Tommy Gonzalez.

     While all of this may sound harsh, realize the following.  Who is responsible for tax payers having to pay for the reckless spending of city funds for: Heritage District property purchased to settle the McDougalville folly; all the undeterminable cost associated with the LCG/Billy Bob Entertainment Center agreement (including legal fees); the ‘life support’ payments doled out to operate the chamber of commerce that even included a Cowboys stadium suite; paying the ex-fire chief $161,000 to ‘write’ grant proposals; all the cost and personnel time associated with ‘buying’ the Baldridge resume´ puffery award; and the city manager’s LaCima Club noshing expenses while wondering how his BackBerry can lose the data detailing the next delivery of sporting ducats under his front door mat?

     Couldn’t most of the funds shelled out for all these items, some verging on fiscal malfeasance, have been put to better use?

     Watch how the city manager and council will quack louder than the “Duck Dynasty” Robertson clan about ‘holding the line’ on the effective tax rate, but little will be mentioned about how your home/lot values may have increased.  (The evaluation process, determined by the DCAD, is that one year the home values increase followed the next year by the property evaluations increasing.) Thereby, tax payers often discern an increase in the amount of taxes actually paid to the city of Irving with no change in the city’s effective tax rate.  

     And while waddling about how conservative the budget is, the city manager mantra will be that city services are not being trimmed, personnel are stretched thin to cover all contingencies, and the city is operating in the ‘mean and lean’ mode.  Convinced?  Would another dose of council/city manager Kool-Aid be required?  Or would an explanation by Uncle Si assist in all this being more believable?

     Perhaps, the greatest tragedy scheme flimflam of the entire city budget process is that only a very, very small and select group of city folks who have pledged undying fealty to the city manager might know where in the budget ‘honey holes’ might be secreted.  These ‘honey hole’ funds could be utilized for the personal oversight and distribution of bucks for special projects that the city manager favors, a request by a council member the manager might want to appease, or something an influential or connected citizen might desire.  Most often, these items are not readily identifiable in the budget, or even know at the time the budget is structured.  Politicos who have easy access to the city hall 4th floor bunker, or can schedule a luncheon date at any fancy non-franchised eatery with the city manager definitely have a listening ear.  

     The money for any new or special item/project could come from a variety of nearly stealth funding sources: non bond CIP (Capital Improvement Project) funds; departmental transfers from a Reserve fund to the city’s General Operating Fund (some Super Bowl, Byron Nelson expenses?);TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds collected; budgeted personnel cost for unfilled/open positions...that probably may never be filled; and the truly unidentifiable and more difficult to prove ‘benefit’ of items funded by...Economic Development bucks collected ($400,000 for a recent elite tennis venture?).  

     The ways the bureaucracy can secrete and bury greenbacks in the shade tree of transparency to keep the ‘green’ from fading in the light of day is limited only by the imagination of the individual in charge of allocating, monitoring and controlling the funds.  And most might agree that the past few years have witnessed some amazing Houdini machinations, at tax payers expense, emanating from the city manager and city council to make funds magically appear for items/projects that have had little or no benefit to the general public...who ultimately have to pay the tab.

     Isn’t it time for the city council and city manager to trim the budget shade trees around city hall so tax payers might be able to observe what is actually occurring with their tax dollar investment in Irving?

……………………..Mark Holbrook