MARCO ISLAND — Talk about a long, hot summer. Members of the Budget Sub-Committee of the Marco Island City Council have not only sat on the dais through lengthy regular City Council meetings, plus workshops and closed “executive sessions” to deal with lawsuits or union contract negotiations, they have held another entire series of meetings, getting a handle on the city’s spending.
The Budget Sub-Committee, or BSC, goes through the entire $16 million budget line by line, reviewing requests from department heads and coming up with a yes or no. These recommendations are presented to the entire council, and before the beginning of the new fiscal year, the City Council performs probably its most critical function, setting the city’s spending, and therefore its tax rate, for the coming year.
This year, the BSC is making an additional recommendation, proposing changing the entire basis on which the budget is calculated and put together. While city staff under the tenure of outgoing City Manager Jim Riviere has trimmed nearly a million dollars from the allotted budget each year, reducing spending below what was budgeted, there is no guarantee that a future manager would continue that practice, said the BSC members.
“The city charter says ‘actual,’ not ‘budgeted,’ for expenditures we look at,” said BSC Chairman Ken Honecker. “Until recently it didn’t make much difference. That extra million went to the asset replacement account. But once it’s budgeted, a future manager could spend it.”
For a decade, the city has been incorrectly calculating the budget,” said BSC member Larry Honig. “Prior to the adoption of the new city charter in 2003, they based the spending cap on budgets. We stumbled into it. It probably made sense at the time. The city doesn’t do forecasting, so it doesn’t know exactly what it will spend.”
If the budget and the actual numbers were close, he would have no problem, he said. “But now, we’re off by almost a million dollars. I don’t think there was any intention to deceive. We want to summarize where we are to our colleagues” on the council.
When Honecker and his fellow BSC members floated the concept of actual versus budget-based calculations at the City Council meeting on Aug. 5, the idea drew a strong reaction from Councilor Larry Magel, who called it a “major problem.” Pulling out the $937,000 of budgeted but unspent funds would tie the hands of city government in the future, he said.
“The 937 becomes the new number for the spending cap, and you’ve shot yourself in the foot,” said Magel. “We have been able to keep the millage rate constant with property values falling eight, 10, and 13 percent because we had reserves.”
“If we’ve got a million in cash lying around, how do we know it won’t be spent?” asked Honecker. The city manager has spending authority up to $50,000, he said, and “there could be a lot of $49,900s.”
The best method for basing the council’s spending decisions, along with a host of details, will be dealt with in upcoming meetings, starting with a marathon budget workshop set for Aug. 19. That session will begin at 10 a.m., with the possibility of continuing straight through into the scheduled regular City Council meeting.
The BSC used the current 1.96 millage rate as the basis for its deliberations, said Honecker on the telephone Monday. “Property values on the island are up 1.9 percent, so the reality is 1.96 brings in two percent more revenue,” he said.
The BSC is turning a set of tight recommendations to the full council, said Honecker. Items such as road resurfacing and checking sewers for leaky pipes have been deferred, part of a “long list” of such items. A requested expenditure of $5,000 for a scoreboard was also axed, pending agreement by the City Council as a whole, “but where we’ve made cuts, we’ve said ‘here’s what it costs’ in additional millage if you want to put it back in.”
Funding for Fourth of July fireworks, always a topic of great public interest, has been capped at $20,000, making it imperative for private contributions to fund the difference, said Honecker.