Council Frustrated by “Muddled” Budget Discussions

By DREW HOWARD

Rochester city council members struggled to understand the full implications of the city’s proposed 2019 budget amendments during their latest meeting on Monday, April 23, thanks in part to a new software system and some newly-elected council members.

City manager Blaine Wing gave a rundown of budget highlights Monday night, including but not limited to: a 2 percent wage increase for paid-on-call firefighters ($5,295); a five-year contract for fiber internet for city hall ($10,000); replacement of police patrol vests ($22,100); AV equipment upgrades for council members ($30,000); and a transfer from the general fund to streets for road repairs and improvements ($500,000). In summary, Wing said the general fund budget of $13.6 million is balanced and has a slight $5,714 in surplus.

He added that the cash-on-hand in the general fund is projected to be a little more than $7.2 million at the conclusion of the 2019 fiscal year end (FYE). Several council members admitted they weren’t sure what to make of the amendments, describing the budget vetting process as “muddled” and “frustrating” thus far.

Mayor pro-tem Kim Russell said city staff failed to provide council members with the proper data points to inform decision making. “I spent all weekend trying to figure this out,” Russell said. “I know a lot of things change, but I didn’t have the percentages – I had to figure them out myself.”

Russell continued: “I know that there’s tons of work that went into this, but it’s grueling for every one of us trying to figure out what the proper decision-making process is for us. It’s not easy at all.”

Council member Ben Giovanelli said this year’s budget process has been especially difficult in comparison to past years. “This year was really a double whammy for this council because we have new members… and we have a new software system,” he said.

Giovanelli added that conversations around the budget haven’t been as productive as they should be. “All of us have full-time jobs, so we pick this up and put it down once every two months. We end up talking about stuff we’ve already sort of resolved, or I thought we got past a while ago, so that’s sort of frustrating.”

Council member Stuart Bikson also expressed frustration over the vetting process. “It’s frustrating to some extent because it does seem like we’ve gone over this over and over, and we always get bogged down [by] some of the minutia, which is legitimate,” he said. “But it really, to me, makes the process seem more messed up than maybe it is.”

“This is my 19th budget, and it does seem pretty muddled,” Bikson added.

Council members were not asked to make any decisions regarding the budget on Monday. The final budget will be presented before the council before it’s officially adopted (or not) on May 14.

The next Rochester City Council meeting is scheduled to take place on Monday, May 14. You can watch this week’s meeting online under the “City Webcast” section at ci.rochester.mi.us.