BELL — Next week, City Council members will try to do something that they were supposed to do 5 1/2 months ago--adopt a formal budget.
Council members say their failure to pass a budget--the first order of business for most any city council--has not had an adverse effect on city management or resulted in diminished services to the public. But city officials acknowledge that Bell's municipal code requires that a formal spending plan be approved "prior to the commencement of the fiscal year," on July 1.
Director of Finance Steve Klotzsche said the fact that Bell is this far into the fiscal year and still minus a formal budget indicates that the council's "decision-making process . . . is highly inefficient." In the 13 years that he has been in municipal government, working for five different cities, Klotzsche said, "this is the worst it's gotten, ever."
Busy With Other Matters
If the council waits much longer, City Atty. J. Robert Flandrick joked this week, "It may turn out to be a history, not a budget."
Council members say they would have hammered out their plans to spend this year's projected $10 million in tax revenue, but they have been busy with redevelopment, issuing bonds, reviewing the city's general plan and a variety of other pressing matters. Officials say they expect budget approval to be on Monday's council agenda.
"This is one of the main things that a city council is elected for," Councilman George Cole said, "because your policy, your plans for the community are reflected in the budget. We've spent more time on it because we've tried to get a better sense of how (money) is spent."
Councilman Ray Johnson agreed that setting a budget is "just good government, it's prudent," but said: "As far as I'm concerned, it's not an issue."
Said Mayor Jay Price: "I don't see any problem because we are on top of it, we know where we stand (financially). We get monthly reports and we know what's happening."
Since the current fiscal year began, according to Klotzsche, city officials have filled the planning void by using last year's budget as a general spending guide.
Asked if the lack of a formal budget reflects anything about the council's performance in general, Mayor Price said, "God no, no."
"There have been some important things that we've had to deal with, and they've occupied a lot of time, so the budget has been sort of delayed," Johnson said.
Not the First Time
This is not the first time Bell has gone months into the fiscal year without adopting a formal budget. In the last two fiscal years, Bell officials adopted a budget in early October. The year before that, the final budget was approved on Nov. 28.
"Ever since I've been on the City Council, it's frustrated me," said Cole, a four-year councilman.
Officials in several surrounding cities said they completed their budgets in June or early July, in keeping with their respective city charters or municipal operating codes. The only city to come close to Bell was neighboring Bell Gardens, which didn't adopt its budget until Aug. 24.
"I think you have to have one," Bellflower Finance Director Linda Manning said. "You can run a city without one, but in terms of planning, it's very useful. . . ."
"It goes without saying that you're disclosing to the public what you're spending on. It meets a political criteria. . . . If you don't have a budget, you let them (the public) know what you have done through financial statements, but that's after the fact."
Cerritos Mayor Daniel Wong said, "It's the most important thing to adopt a budget."
'It Promotes Accountability'
County governments, meanwhile, are legally required to submit a budget to the state within 60 days of the beginning of the fiscal year. "People who are responsible for complex government need to know where their money is coming from and where it is going, said Terry Dugan, a spokesman for the League of California Cities. "By adopting (a budget), the people they serve can know where it's going, and that promotes accountability."
Bell Councilman Rolf Janssen said the budget delay has been primarily the result of the council's attention to detail. "I take it as a badge of honor that we get very involved in the budget process," he said.
But sometimes that creates problems, Klotzsche said. "They get so involved in a line-item discussion of the budget that they lose track of the big picture. The operation is not conducive to quick resolution. . . . When you go into that kind of detail, it's an extremely long, drawn-out process."
Administrative Officer Byron Woosley said the budget process has been especially tough this year because the city has had to cope with the loss of federal revenue sharing money, and the instability of the California Bell Club as a source of tax revenue has "forced us to spend more time in looking at priorities" and made it tougher for administrators to choose how to spend.
60-Day Lead Time
Since August, the council has conducted several meetings devoted only to budget matters. And members have passed an ordinance requiring city administrators to prepare and submit future budgets for council approval no later than 60 days before the start of a fiscal year.
"If we can have (a proposed budget) in our hands by May 1, then we can certainly have it adopted by June 30," Mayor Price said. "Otherwise, there would be no point to adopting the ordinance."
Council members have also discussed planning the budget two years in advance, making the process biannual. But Klotzsche said that wouldn't necessarily make decision-making any easier.
"First we're going to have to do one year before we can go to two," he said. "You have to have a lot of faith in your estimates. The farther down the road you look, the hazier things become."