Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, is supposed to have written:
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
I don’t happen to be a member of Congress and, while the jury may be out on the former point, I’m somewhat concerned about how Anchorage’s 2010 budget writing process is developing.
First off, it’s clear that the world’s economic recession is affecting Anchorage. That’s no surprise, and residents should expect a slimmed-down municipal budget next year. Given those facts there are a couple matters to consider:
On Friday, August 28, the administration unveiled a preliminary look at the circumstances affecting the 2010 budget. It wasn’t a pretty picture, with a variety of scenarios dictating differing levels of reductions in municipal spending. But, less than a week later, a KTUU story indicated that municipal budget officials had drastically underestimated revenues associated with ambulance services provided by the Anchorage Fire Department. Here’s what an IAFF officer had to say about the matter:
“Tonight KTUU ran a story on EMS billing. Over 1 million dollars of the mayor’s 9 million dollar shortfall for 09 is due a change in accounting practice. The city now counts any EMS bill past 120 days as a zero. We have an 88% collection rate overall. Unless something were to change drastically we will still collect that million plus that the mayor counted as a zero and called a shortfall. There is a proven past pattern of collections. Why adopt a new one?”
And it doesn’t stop there. IAFF officials have been aggressive in pointing out discrepancies between statements from the administration and their view of MOA finances, and made the following inquiry to the Office of Management & Budget regarding projected labor costs:
“I was looking at the handout provided to the assembly. On the second page it lists the salary and benefit increases for 2010. The fire department increase is listed at $3,481,612. At the bottom it notes that this does not include the PIP. If we have 400 employees (which I think is high at this point) it figures out to be about $9000 per employee. I know we are scheduled to get a CPI raise (looking like 2.9%) and I know a minority of our members (Captains and Senior Captains) will also get rank separation. A 2.9% increase on $50 million is roughly $1.4 million. The rank separation is a couple hundred thousand. I have been told that for the second year in a row medical costs will be flat. Can I get a breakdown of the $3,481,612 number you provided the assembly with? I want to make sure that when I speak I have the correct numbers.”
Here’s how OMB responded:
“I will have the AFD budget analyst produce a report that identifies FY 10 costs, so stay tuned.”
And the AFD analyst? Here’s what he had to say:
“This estimate was prepared jointly by the Office of Internal Audit and OMB. The department, to the best of my knowledge, played no role in the development or presentation of the figures.”
If the information received by Assembly members on one department’s expenses are that convoluted it reasonably raises the concern of how we’ll ever answer the first question I posed above and, if we can’t answer that one, how can we address the second? In my day job I’m only responsible for revenue budgets in the $90 million range and expense budgets in the $20 million dollar range, so perhaps I lack the sophistication to work on a municipal budget in the $400 million neighborhood. Then again, maybe I am capable. Either way, it’ll be hard to know unless and until I have confidence in the quality of the information imparted by the administration.
Copyright - Patrick Flynn, All Rights Reserved