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Joyce Clark Unfiltered

For "the rest of the story"

It has been 18 years and 94 days since the city’s pledge to build the West Branch Library.

On March 19, 2016, Paul Giblin’s article is entitled Glendale expenses get more scrutiny. It is not online as of this date so no link to the story is provided. In his article Giblin solicits reaction to Chavira’s questionable travel expenses from his peers…the Glendale city councilmembers. Giblin reports, “Sammy Chavira’s colleagues on the Glendale City Council said this week they want to strengthen the city’s travel policy following reporting by the Arizona Republic on Chavira’s travel expenses.”

Mayor Weiers said, “‘We’re going to have to do something. Weiers said one option to tighten the travel policy would be to require councilmembers to use personal credit cards, rather than city-issued cards, for all city-related travel. If you want to be reimbursed, then you have to provide us with all the information – who, what, when, why, where. If you don’t provide that, then you’re not going to get reimbursed,’ he said.”

A majority of councilmembers have said this is a future public city council workshop topic of discussion. Silent on the issue were Councilmember Chavira and Councilmember Aldama. “Vice Mayor Ian Hugh and City Council members Lauren Tolmachoff and Bart Turner told The Republic they expect a formal discussion at a public meeting about improving the city’s travel policy for elected officials.”

The reactions from various councilmembers are varied. “Hugh said he is opposed to granting council members authority to approve or disapprove of each other’s trips.” Frankly I agree with his assessment. In towns and cities there are councilmembers who don’t like each other, don’t get along with each other and may downright hate each other. In most cases, the public is never aware of councilmembers’ animosity toward one another because publicly they remain polite to one another. Political animosity (or even revenge) would be a constant threat if councilmembers’ had the power to approve or disapprove of one another’s expenses.

“‘Council members should be held to at least the same standard as rank-and-file city employees,’ Tolmachoff said.” Councilmember Tolmachoff almost got it. Councilmembers should not be held to the same standards as other city employees. They should be held to the highest standard. They should be a model for all employees to follow. Councilmembers are in a unique position. There are only 7 of them elected by the people of Glendale. There is no comparable position in Glendale. That makes them unique. Their major responsibility is to develop all policy for the city. It is an enormous task requiring their best efforts and a commitment to impartiality. It is their responsibility to strive to be above reproach at all times and in all instances.

Councilmember Ray Malnar thinks that a periodic audit of councilmembers’ use of their expense accounts is in order. “Periodic audits of council members’ expenses would help keep members attuned to existing guidelines, Malnar said. ‘There’s always the ability, no matter what kind of controls you have in place, for abuse. And a lot of it is a matter of trust and follow-up.’ he said.” It is a solid suggestion. It bears serious consideration and has the appeal of having a councilmember’s expenses related to his or her budgets scrutinized on a regular basis.

Councilmember Turner, surprisingly, offered very little concern about councilmembers’ travel expenses and instead focused on lost receipts. “Turner said he’s interested in reviewing the city’s policy for lost receipts and perhaps capping the amount allowable for reimbursement using lost-receipt forms.There’s no transparency around a lost receipt, and I think we owe it to our taxpayers to be as transparent as possible,’ Turner said.”

From the councilmembers’ comments two viable themes emerged. Councilmember Malnar suggested audits. If such audits are not publicly posted prominently and instead are buried in the bowels of city hall paperwork, what good is an audit? Councilmember Turner made reference to transparency. However, currently there is no transparency related to any expense incurred by a councilmember. Why tailor transparency narrowly to a lost-receipt? It’s illogical. Transparency only serves the public interest when it brings to light a practice formerly buried and generalized in the city’s annual budget book.

Perhaps audits and transparency should be used in tandem. City councilmembers should consider revising their policy to include an annual audit performed by Glendale’s Audit Office of both their communications/professional development budget and their infrastructure improvements budget to be completed by October 1 of every year. I can hear the City Auditor now saying that it is an onerous burden upon her department. It is not unreasonable. Each councilmember’s two budgets total approximately $35,000 a year. They are simplistic and not as complicated as one would find in auditing an entire city department comprised of millions of dollars. They could be completed quickly and would not require an inordinate amount of audit staff’s time.

These audits should be posted in each councilmember’s Friday e-newsletter no later than the end of each October. If a councilmember had to publicly announce what expenditures he or she made during the course of a year it would constantly reinforce the concept that each and every dollar is a taxpayer dollar and not “theirs.” This is a reasonable policy. It would create an unmatched level of transparency for Glendale’s citizens. Glendale would be the first city in the state to adopt such a model and it is expected it would cause other cities to follow suit. It would have the effect of helping the public to determine if a councilmember was making effective and ethical use of their taxpayer dollars. It would certainly be a breath of political fresh air.

In the meantime, Giblin reported, “While Glendale officials talked about Chavira’s expenditures, Phoenix officials acted on them. Phoenix officials submitted five checks to Glendale on March 9 to reimburse the city for their portions of the seafood dinner, said Glendale spokeswoman Sue Breding.” Obviously these Phoenix officials, such as the Phoenix Fire Chief, by reimbursing the city, are tacitly acknowledging that Chavira’s payment for their dinners was inappropriate. That cannot be good for Chavira who keeps repeating that he did nothing wrong. Perhaps he’s hoping if he repeats it often enough people will believe him…Hmmm, I think not. I wonder if former Glendale Fire Chief Mark Burdick or Phoenix Councilmember Danny Valenzuela (who happens to be a Glendale fire fighter) reimbursed Glendale. There’s no way to know as that information is not forthcoming.

Come on, Glendale councilmembers, think outside the box. Develop a policy that sheds light on the issue for all of Glendale’s taxpayers. After all, it’s not about you. It’s about the citizens and city that you are elected to serve.

© Joyce Clark, 2016

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The February 4, 2014 morning session of the city council workshop was devoted to budget issues. Here is the link to the presentation slides used by city staff:

http://www.glendaleaz.com/Clerk/agendasandminutes/documents/BudgetWorkshop-20140204.pdf .

It was a long and complicated presentation. I am not reviewing all the minutiae of the meeting but rather let’s look at the “take-aways.”

  • Take-Away #1: Council approved staff’s recommendation that the property tax rate float. The total property tax rate prior to the Great Recession was $1.5951 in Fiscal Year11-12. In Fiscal Year12-13 it was $1.9005. In Fiscal Year13-14 it is $2.2889. Solution #1 to raising more revenue increases the total property tax rate per $100 by $0.6938.
  • Take-Away #2: Council approved making inter-fund interest rates variable based on what the city receives as a return on its investments. Council borrowed money from the landfill, water/sewer enterprise funds as well as the technology replacement fund and the vehicle replacement fund. By floating the interest rate to the rate the city makes on its investments saves the city a considerable amount of interest debt on those loans. The current interest rate is 3.62% at a cost of $1.6 million. With adoption of a variable rate the interest becomes 0.40% next year at an interest cost of $178,640. Solution #2 to raising more revenue makes the interest rate on internal loans variable.
  • Take-Away #3: Council approved a series of 5 strategies to raise further revenue. They include transferring dollars out of the total arts fund balance of $1.066 million. Several years ago Council transferred a little over $2 million out of the arts fund. So it can be done. I don’t think anyone wants to see the arts fund be dissolved and it should retain a fund balance. Another revenue raiser is to audit companies that pay sales tax revenue to the city. Clearly Mayor Weiers (pro business) was uncomfortable with this concept. Staff contends that it will raise revenue for the city but could not project how much. Staff proposed that the amount the General Fund charges departments for support, i.e., legal, financial, human resources, be increased – modestly. Staff indicated that they are still working on a city asset list of properties for sale or lease back. Staff also proposed that the temporary sales tax become permanent, that the rate be increased and that the list of taxable items be increased. Solution #3 is to get blood out of a stone.
  • Take-Away #4: These expenditure items are still in discussion and will be brought back to council but include restructuring of the city’s inter-fund loans (already done) and elimination of the sales tax paid by the city for water use on its own properties (already done). Still on the chopping block is the reduction/elimination of retiree health subsidies; alternative service delivery to citizens; and adjustment (downward) of the city’s contingency fund.

The reduction or elimination of retiree health subsides is truly unconscionable. Many retirees are on fixed, monthly incomes (Social Security) and can ill afford to see their health premiums go even higher. Perhaps if it were proposed as beginning on July 1, 2014 for new retirees who understand that they will not be subsidized and can prepare for it, it could work. Alternative Service Delivery (elimination or privatization of services) should not include the Enterprise Departments of water, sewer or sanitation. These funds are not part of the General Fund deficit for they are stand-alone and rely upon the rate payers to bear the costs of those services. A reduction of those services will have no impact on the General Fund.

The concept of the Contingency Fund is more complex. What staff proposes is to rearrange the deck chairs. Historically, in Glendale, the Contingency Fund was pegged at 10% and all or part of it could be used for unexpected expenses that arose during the course of the Fiscal Year. It remained and often grew from year to year. Staff is proposing that Contingency be set at 5% and still to be used for unanticipated expenses. It will become a renewable line item in the budget that can be made larger or smaller. Now there is introduction of a new concept, Ending Fund Balance (EDF). The EDF would be the city’s savings account for purposes of demonstrating to the bond rating agencies that Glendale has a reserve other than Contingency. Staff wants the EDF to be pegged at 25% of the General Fund Operating Budget. That is an awful lot of money to come up with instantly. Yet that is part of staff’s plan. They want Glendale, in its worst fiscal crisis ever, to turn around instantly and mimic the practices of a Triple A rated city. The idea is sound but the instant execution is not. It is warranted that it took Glendale several years to dig itself into a hole and it stands to reason that it will take several years to dig its way out. There’s an old proverb, “Rome was not built in a day.” Glendale’s financial mess will take more than a day to right itself.

© Joyce Clark, 2014

FAIR USE NOTICE

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which is in accordance with Title 17 U.S. C., Section 107. The material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democratic, scientific and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of the US Copyright Law and who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use,’ you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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