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Auditor not happy with city's budget process

City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero is criticizing the city’s budgeting process just as work begins on the annual budget that will take effect on July 1.

Among other things, an audit released by Caballero’s office on Wednesday says the city does not have a clear set of budget priorities to follow. As a result, council members who oversee individual bureaus fight for them without enough regard for larger issues.

“Without improvements, the city will continue to spend substantial time to produce some information that ultimately has limited use, and the value of

bureau and public effort in the budget process will remain questionable,” says the audit, which noted that two audits released in 2013 said the same thing.

The audit also said the budget process is too time-consuming, with some bureaus spending up to 10 months developing a budget that will be used for 12 months.

“Several bureau directors told us that developing the budget requires too many resources, with one saying that time spent on the budget takes away from providing services,” the audit says.

And the audit questioned the value of the extensive public involvement process that includes citizens serving on a variety of budget advisory committees. Although some committee members and bureau managers found their input helpful, others disagreed.

The audit includes several recommendations for improving the budget process, including:

n Establishing citywide priorities for use in budget and other strategic planning decisions.

n Providing priorities earlier in the budget process so the

bureaus that start their budget work early — the larger bureaus — have the information as they begin the process.

n Adopting a two-year budget, which some local governments have done to reduce staff time spent on budget preparation and analysis. Budget law allows a two-year budget.

In a letter of response, Mayor Charlie Hales said he agreed with the recommendations and noted that he led a council discussion about city priorities in November 2013. Hales admitted the council did not reach consensus, however, prompting him to issue his own set of priorities for bureaus to follow.

After years of budget cuts caused by the Great Recession that reduced revenue, the city is projected to have more money to spend next year. Although the ending balance is not yet known, $14.4 million in additional one-time monies have so far been identified. The council has passed a measure to spend half that money on infrastructure maintenance projects. Bureau requests submitted to date already exceed the remaining $7.2 million.

The audit can be read at bit.ly/1DyzT7O.

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