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Sparks Fly as Carson Nears Vote on Budget

November 29, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Almost five months into the fiscal year, Carson still has not approved a budget, and the fear, loathing and finger-pointing that sporadically erupt in the city's intense politics have flared anew.

Monday night, the council is expected to vote on a new budget package that is $1.4 million less than the original $26.7-million spending plan proposed in June, with $567,000 coming out of the community development budget and $462,000 lopped off the parks and recreation budget.

But it appears unlikely that a simple vote will settle Carson's spending priorities. New programs and personnel will be considered in a separate, supplemental budget that is not completed, and the new city administrator is promising to reorganize the staff and set up more stringent budget procedures.

But most important, an election is coming up in the spring for the three council seats now occupied by members of the controlling council faction. The handling of the budget is sure to be an issue in what augurs to be hard-fought reelection bids by council members Michael Mitoma, Vera Robles DeWitt and Kay Calas.

Accusations about what went wrong in the current budget process are flying in all directions:

Mitoma, elected in March as the crucial third vote in the council alliance up for reelection, blames council opponents Tom Mills and Sylvia Muise and former City Administrator John Dangleis for "rubber-stamping" staff recommendations when they dominated city government.

Mills, in turn, criticizes the new city administrator, Dick Gunnarson, installed in May against his and Muise's wishes, as a "novice" who doesn't know what he is doing. Mills says his council opponents, who control the budget committee, are taking too long to present a budget to the full council.

Gunnarson says the staff he inherited had padded the original budget, making cuts necessary. He said he considers criticism from Mills and Muise to be political maneuvering intended to boost their candidates in the spring.

Finance Director William Parrott, who reports to Gunnarson, says his boss is just out to make a name for himself by bad-mouthing old-guard staffers.

Even with the extra time expended on the budgeting process, Gunnarson said, "I can in no way certify that all this money is going to be well spent."

Next year, he vowed, the budget will be on time and properly done.

Yet despite uncertainties about the final budget, city government has continued to operate. Unaffected by the escalating rhetoric, rank-and-file employees process the building permits, issue business licenses and take care of myriad housekeeping activities.

However, new city programs and projects, with the exception of the city's hotel and office redevelopment project, have been put on the back burner because the council has not approved money for them. In addition, Gunnarson has taken months to fill department head vacancies, and the new officials have yet to establish priorities for their departments.

Only $220,000 to Spare

Council members realized in June that they had problems when the draft budget began circulating. Finance Director Parrott's directive to department heads was to turn in a "bare-bones" budget--no new programs or new personnel. Even so, the draft proposal left the city with only $220,000 to spend on new programs and staff because of a limit set by the state Gann amendment. (The Gann amendment limits budget increases according to a formula based on population increase and inflation.)

If the council wanted to spend more on new ventures, it would have to make cuts in the budget for existing programs. Parrott's budget said that $1.5 million could be cut from the draft proposal, but he did not say which department budgets should get the knife.

Mayor Pro Tem DeWitt told Parrott she was unhappy with his suggestion and that more scrutiny was required. To provide that scrutiny, the council set up a budget committee and on June 29 named Mitoma its first member. DeWitt, a Mitoma ally, later was named to the panel.

Since both council members are part of the same faction, Muise began sitting in on the panel as a non-voting observer. Otherwise, the state open-government law would have required the committee to give public notice of meetings and agendas, and members said that would be too cumbersome.

Going over the budget line by line, Gunnarson said, the committee soon discovered that Parrott's instructions to department heads to prepare a "bare-bones" budget request had not been followed.

"We found that, on evaluating it, that every department had violated those instructions," Gunnarson said. "Every damn one of them fudged it."

Said DeWitt: "It was a mess."

For example, the Finance Department had itself proposed new positions. The Community Development Department wanted $25,000 to attend conferences, yet had not spent anywhere close to that amount the previous year, according to Gunnarson.

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