7/06/2007

City Budget

The City Commission approved a new budget on Tuesday, despite pleas from some people that the citizens need more time to review and consider the proposed budget. While I tend to agree that City government issues tend to sort of 'pop up,' information probably is available much earlier for those who ask. The question is, I guess, whether it is reasonable to start following an issue when it shows up in the Tribune, or whether a citizen who wishes to actively participate in government needs to be more pro-active and spend time at the Civic Center. (The other question, I think, is whether our Commissioners receive a great deal of information 'behind the scenes' so that they actually know much more about these things earlier than the the public does?)

After watching Tuesday's meeting, though, neither of those two questions really struck me. No, in discussing it with our friend Hawkeye, we had a different observation. Isn't it amazing, really, in a system of government that prides itself on openness and diversity of thought, how little discussion there really is? Doesn't it strike any of you just how much consensus we have in our City Government on issue after issue? I am not asking for rancor, but where is the probing discussion to get at all sides of an issue?

I didn't want to spend a lot of time on it, but I just went back to the City Commission minutes. Do you know how far back you have to go to find a dissenting vote on any issue? April 17, 2007. And that's the only dissenting vote I was able to find all year.

I am not a statistician, but if I were I suspect there might be some mischief in these numbers. You have 5 different, purportedly diverse people on a board. Yet on virtually every issue they all vote the same way, and that way is the way suggested by their employees. I would guess there is some significance in those numbers.

And beyond voting differently, how about some discussion? Let's take as our example the City's new budget and the tax increase to pay for increased health insurance premiums for City employees. My numbers are approximate, but I think the assistant City Manager said that a single employee will see his or her premium increase to $16.00 from $10.00, while a family will see an increase to $92.00 from $76.00.

Isn't there anyone on the Commission who would at least raise the question: Hey, maybe these rates aren't so bad compared to what the average person pays for insurance? Maybe we ought to at least discuss and consider whether this particular premium increase should be borne by the employees rather than the taxpayers. I am not saying that the Commission should or should not have voted a certain way, but wouldn't you have liked to hear that they at least considered opposing points of view, worked through them and came to their decision?

Motion carried 5-0.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

FYI...city employees pay at least half of any increase to health insurance.

Treasure State Jew said...

Geeguy;

Catch me on this. I remember once hearing that Montana had some sort of 'open records law' where anytime a quorum of elected officials met -- even for a bull session by accident in a hallway -- a threshold was reached where official business could be transacted and therefore public notice had to be given, minutes taken, etc.

Is this true? If so, then I suggest to you that the consensus you highlight would require some coordination. Does that coordination meet the scrutiny of our open records statutes (if they in fact exist)?

GeeGuy said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the info. Do you know how this interplays with the recent budget and tax increase?

And might this not be something we would have learned in the midst of full and frank discussion of all the budget issues? Or did they tell us that, and I just missed it?

Anonymous said...

FYI...city employees get a real bargain on thier health insurance. My premium payment rose $58.00/month last year. For a family plan I am now paying $480.54/mo.

mary jolley said...

Budget
At the last Work Session the city commissioners were presented with a power point to lay out priorities for the fiscal year. Mr. Lawton presented. There were no questions from our elected officials. The presentation was lacking anything that resembled mathematics. I do doubt that the commissioners read their copies of the proposed budget where the math was located. I asked for more time not really for myself but for others, especially Mr. Rosenbaum to READ it. I was asking questions about the health plan. A simple one, "Is the plan self funded?" As the commissioners said nothing but looked to staff one might guess they are just shy or perhaps they did not know. Which city commissioners are participants in the plan. Oh, and Mr Great Falls development is on the plan, the family plan. Dear Geeguy I think the sad truth is that there are no aside meetings, there is just no examination of any documents that co-incide with commission votes.
Staff must be relied on to provide information. Remember when you (well maybe not you) were in college and didn't know enough to ask a question?

GeeGuy said...

Your cynicism is duly noted.

WolfPack said...

I was a little surprised by how little city workers contribute towards their healthcare. No where near the private sector or county employees. Candidate Mary Jolley asked some good questions about what was behind the health insurance cost increases. The answer was that the self insured pool was in the red. Jolley also asked if the stop loss policy had gone up and the answer was that they didn't know yet because they were still waiting on a quote. This seemed like a big unknown to have out there if there is no hurry to get the budget passed or taxes raised as Lawton told Jolley. Also, I thought it was said that the city employee’s increase was only their prorated share of the costs, not half of the increase. I think the small employee increase of $6/month bears this out.
I talked to some of the commissioners in the hallway about the HSCC issue and why more information wasn't made public. They said it was Lawton’s decision so as not to turn it into an anti-HSCC battle (that worked out well). All said there was no intent of taking over the shelter. They also said the police file they were provided on shelter complaints was inches thick and with concerns over the existing board something had to be done. The four I talked to were happy with the agreement between the city and the existing board to work out any issues toward the goal of the HSCC maintaining the contract. Lawton stated that all shelter employees would be transferred to city payroll during the negotiation period and Donahue said all HSCC equipment would be left for city use during this period. For at least this small public time slot they were very encouraging as to cleaning up this mess.
After sitting through a full meeting I still don’t see anything wrong with the 3 minute rule on the end of the meeting during open mike period. Some speakers asked for an additional minute and were granted it without question. Even if you don’t have enough time to finish you can always come back in two weeks. It’s bad enough for a full room of people to have to sit through some of the ramblings of the quasi-mentally ill during public hearings of limited topic without time limits, but to give them the an open mike at the end of the night with no boundries for as long as they can speak is just cruel to regular citizens, our elected officials and city staff. At least us citizens can get up and leave. And, to those of you that think I’m being to judgmental on some of my fellow citizens I challenge you to invite some of the commission meeting regulars home for dinner (we all know which ones I’m talking about).

GeeGuy said...

No 3-minute rule does not mean "open mike at the end of the night with no boundries for as long as they can speak." Discussions can still be limited, just not with an arbitrary time limit.

And think about it, on the night of a meeting with several contentious topics, the meeting was adjourned less than 2 hours before it began. Do you think that is abusive?

Anonymous said...

RE: After sitting through a full meeting I still don’t see anything wrong

Of course you don't see anything wrong..

*You talked to some of the commissioners in the hallway.

*A hallway where information wasn't made public to the 50-80 people who bothered to show up.

*In a hallway some said it was his decision ~ Mr. Lawton had no opportunity to respond.

"...think about it, on the night of a meeting with several contentious topics, the meeting was adjourned less than 2 hours before it began. Do you think that is abusive?"

Anonymous said...

Hey, wolfwacky, about those "quasi-mentally ill folks" who ramble on endlessly saying nothing and exceeding the three minute rule, does that include posts on this forum too? For you see, I just timed you previous and post, and guess what. YOU'RE OUTTA HERE! Sorry. See you in two weeks!

LK

WolfPack said...

Geeguy- Are you suggesting that speaker’s time be limited based on content at the mayors discretion? The arbitrary 3/+1 minute rule seems less restrictive since content limiting is for decency only. In the long run this seems reasonable to me since the topics being limited are not on the agenda for that night anyway and can not be acted on by the commission. Are we in agreement that some limits are necessary?

If the meeting was 2 hours with the 3 minute limit what would it have been without the limit? And for our extra time we would have had not one minute more discussion over the contentious items. The parts of the meeting that could have used more discussion were the items on the agenda such as budget approval and property tax increase, not the open mike period were the 3 minute rule applies. What other public body allows citizens just to walk in and speak for 3 minutes? Why is city government held to a different standard?

Anon- why do you find it a bad thing that you can just walk up to our commissioners and start talking? If you’re polite they seem pretty approachable. Most of the problems with our commissioners are institutional not individual problems. Aaron over at TSJ does a pretty good job explaining this in a recent post.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably a little off in my concerns as they apply to the honesty, ethics and legal behavior of our city officials, but here they are -

We have city commissioners that are basically cowards and not standing up to a city manager when he doesn't want something "public" as it might become a battle. They would rather talk in a hall where they can say they were misquoted or didn't say that. End discussion.

The city doesn't want people to get in the way of their decisions which they make at private meetings. When asked direct questions during public meetings the commissioners have remained silent and not answered. Maybe they don't have one. Maybe the few control the many. End discussion.

The mayor says if the comments are on-point the 3-minute rule is not hard and fast...that's been shown to be untrue with a number of speakers, on a number of topics. And, if the topic is on the agenda for vote, there is no time-limit if the person speaks about the specific topic. This is also not happening. End discussion.

Agenda items which should be discussed with the public before taking a vote are voted on in private and then presented as a done-deal to the public meetings and can then be shoved under this arbitrary 3-minute rule. Or they can be hustled through on a unanimous vote. End discussion.

Civility of behavior is determined by one person, the mayor, who has been heard to tell commissioners and the public to "shut up" and more. End discussion.

I don't see where any of this allows for discussion by and with the public which foots the bill and picks up the fall-out.

Treasure State Jew said...

I haven't said too much about the 3 minute rule. However, I have one observation.

In the US House of Representatives, there is time scheduled on the house floor at the end of each day the House is in session for something called "One Minute Speeches". Any member can take the floor for any reason and give speeches that are limited to one minute in length.

Now, you would be surprised what kind of cogent argument can be made in only sixty seconds. Our city commission schedules three times more time at the end of every meeting for any citizen to speak than the House schedules for US Congressmen.

Anonymous said...

One thing that simply AMAZES me about these commenters is that NONE of you seems to have EVER testified at the Legislature in Helena! Guess what. NO TIME LIMIT for individual speakers! There may be up to two hundred or more people waiting to testify on a bill. (I've seen this) And the committee head will determine how long EACH SIDE, pro and con, gets to speak. And that's the way it is. Look, some bills are quite complex and require some rather lenghty expert testimony. But there is no three limit rule! Some people may not get to speak at all because of the time limit. Usually, at the end of the comment period, the committee chair will then allow people to come forward, give their names, and whether they are for or against a bill. But again, NO three minute rule. The really irritating, arrogant, undemocratic thing about the mayor and her cowardly minions on the city commission is that issues like the coal plant DEMAND/REQUIRE a tremendous amount of public testimony. The public is damned tired of getting screwed over by industry, ESPECIALLY the power industry. The public is no longer complacent. They DEMAND a say in the process, and rightfully so. Why? Simple. It is the PUBLIC that gets to pay the bills, AND ingest, breathe etc. the toxins produced by the unnecessary boondoggle energy projects. The health effects of this proposed coal plant are NOT theoritical. They are verifiable. The data from Coalstrip is availabe to anyone. People living downwind do INDEED suffer a tremendously higher rate of diseases related to coalfired electric generation. SO, why SHOULDN'T we here in GF be allowed to voice our conerns? Why SHOULD jonny rotten and primadonna decide FOR us what we must or must not breathe? Look, I attented the one and ONLY public forum on the prosed plant. I assume from your comments that none of you did, because you could not POSSIBLY use terms like "quasi-mentally ill" people testifying. It was an INCREDIBLE meeting. I have been to many, many publice meetings over the years. But none was like this. The meeting stretched on for over three hours, but not once did I get bored. Every speaker against the plant was cogent, articulate, and forceful. It was spontaneous. It was original. It was beautiful. And it was pure democracy! THAT is what we need more of! Of course, SME had simply ferried in electrical worker flaks from around the state to testify on their behalf. And their testimony was all pretty much the same. I maintain that issues of great import DEMAND the utmost from democracy. Otherwise we end up in the situation that we currently find ourselves in which everything appears to have been decided before hand behind closed doors. And the end result is that the hostility between the city and the public simply continues to grow. The three minute rule exacerbates the problem. For you see, it's really quite difficult for me personally, and probably many others out there also, to believe that donna stebbins could POSSIBLY possess the where-with-all to understand fully all the relavent issues involved in such huge decisions. I mean, when I see qualified expert testimony quashed by DONNA after just three minutes, you just KNOW that they system ain't working! I look for things to get worse until a new mayor puts that public back in the process. And that's probably what will happen. I haven't spoken to TOO many people who want donna back in there.


LK

Anonymous said...

Oops! That should be "don't" want donna back in there. My bad.

LK

Anonymous said...

To answer geeguy--the increase for the majority of employees who are in the union, they received a 3.75-4.0% raise. Some voted to use part of the increase towards their contribution to their pension. In order to get the 'good deal' on health insurance, many of the unions have had to fight to get it and have gotten that in lieu of an increase, which is basically a COLA.

I have worked other places where I had to pay my entire insurance amount, and that is one of the reasons I applied to work for the city. The city benefits are a means to attract people to public service. City employees do not get any kind of discount on pools, golf, water, or Christmas bonuses of any kind. Our Christmas parties are paid for through fundraisers or we pay for our own meals. Retiring employees do not get a reception at the city's expense. They don't get a 'gold watch'. Gifts are paid with through donations by fellow employees.

During the budget process, employees were required to stay under 4% which included skyrocketing fuel and utility costs, and insurance costs.

Regarding the budget, there were budget hearings at the Civic Center presented by each department head and attended by all staff that had a part in putting that budget together. These were open to the public and advertised in the Tribune on the back of the front section. The session I attended did not have anyone from the public sitting in to listen, and the commissioners asked questions about future projects so they would know what they might be presented with in a future work session or commission meeting.

There are many opportunities to attend hearings and meetings, but very few people take advantage of it.

Anonymous said...

Little point looking at single trees. You need to see the complete forest to know how big it is.

Anonymous said...

The County insurance increases are going to reult in many people quitting the County because they simply cant afford the insurance. $10.00 an hour jailers cant afford $100.00 a month increases over and above what they are already paying. The County already has positions they cant fill. Its only going to get worse.