Budget Battle Sparks Call for Fiscal Transparency

Fireworks and hyperbole flew at the recent Board of Supervisors meeting as the supervisors took up the allocation of $362.4 –from last year’s budget that supplemented the $25 billion-County budget already approved by the board in June.

Much of what happened during the budget deliberations, however, was inside baseball. Without an airing of the underlying issues it was easy for anyone so inclined to misdirect the public.

At issue was a call for transparency by Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas in the budgeting of $75 million in surplus funds from fiscal year 2012-2013. Neither the CEO nor the Board had ever clarified how the money, which is to be accessed by all five districts, should be apportioned.

Initially, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, called for the funds to be parked in a reserve account, requiring 4-votes to allocate, until a spending strategy was determined.

A “no” vote with regard to moving those funds in fact was a “yes” vote for greater fiscal accountability.

“I voted “no” regarding the $75 million because there was no systematic plan for its allocation,” the supervisor said. “This board has worked hard to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and the fact that the county ended fiscal year 2012 with a modest surplus is not reason to abandon the fiscal prudence that led to our economic stabilization.”

With the standoff in Washington D.C. apparently fresh in board members’ minds, there was even overheated and misleading rhetoric, with references to “Tea Party” tactics and government shutdowns.

The histrionics were uncalled for and misleading. As mentioned, the board approved next year’s budget in June. There was never a threat of a so-called shutdown, and alluding to such a thing – even in the heat of a funding battle – was irresponsible.

Although the county ended fiscal year 2012-13 with a modest surplus, and the CEO’s overall recommendation reflected stabilized budget conditions for fiscal year 2014, a number of budget uncertainties remain.

Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich, who also questioned the lack of transparency, agreed that a systematic plan was necessary.

“What is the fair formula for the distribution of those unallocated dollars?” asked Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “We haven’t had that discussion.”

In the end, Supervisor Antonovich proposed placing the $75 million in a separate account where it can be tracked; every dollar that moves from the account will require three votes by the board. That proposal was accepted, and the supplemental funding was approved unanimously.

“I’m pleased with the outcome,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “It gives the public what it deserves – fiscal transparency with taxpayer dollars.”