KEVIN LEININGER: City Council is right: When it comes to spending public money, the public should have a bigger voice

City Councilmen Jason Arp, left, and John Crawford, right, proposed cuts to the city's 2018 budget. But some council members want more influence over spending from the start. (News-Sentinel file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

Decades ago Allen County Council members would spend a whole week on budget discussions each summer, debating about whether to buy a copier or some other mundane gizmo for what seemed like hours. Even so, I seemed to write a story every few months about how the county had almost no money left beyond what was already in the budget.

Today Allen County government has well over $100 million in cash reserves (on paper, at least), and although many factors account for that prosperity, a change in the budgeting process deserves its share of the credit — and justifies City Council members’ desire to wield more influence over Fort Wayne’s annual spending plan.

As I first reported Friday, Council members Russ Jehl, R-2nd, and Michael Barranda, D-at large, on Tuesday will introduce a resolution that would transfer $1.25 million in unanticipated revenues Mayor Tom Henry wanted to spend on home repairs and facade grants to neighborhood improvements and other public purposes instead. A separate ordinance, also up for introduction Tuesday, would require the administration to consult with council before spending non-appropriated funds and would allow council to seek relief in court should the administration fail to do so.

In an election year, it’s easy to write all of this off as just another spat between a Democratic mayor and a GOP-dominated council. And, in fact, there was nothing wrong with the way Henry proposed to spend a total of $3.25 million in unanticipated income taxes when he announced the plan a couple of months ago.

But that’s just the point, Jehl and Barranda insist: Henry’s plan was announced to the public with little or no prior consultation with members of what is supposed to be the city’s fiscal body. In fact, the entire city budgeting process is similarly one-sided: The administration proposes a budget and sends it to council, which can cut spending but cannot transfer funds from one account to another, as Jehl and Barranda seek to do with the $1.25 million.

Contrast that with how the county has done its budget business for the past several years: After receiving income projections from the Auditor, council members consult with the heads of departments to which they have been assigned as liaisons. Council then establishes a preliminary budget for each department, and department heads can either accept the amount or file an appeal.

The end result is a budget that from the very beginning has had the input of elected officials who are familiar with departments’ needs, making the approval process more collaborative and far less contentious. And don’t think the fact that almost all county officials are Republicans guarantees harmony. That hasn’t always been the case.

Spending the public’s money is the public’s business, and the best way to assure taxpayers’ priorities are at least considered is to give city council members — the elected officials closest to the people — the opportunity to do more than cast a yes-or-no vote on a budget over which they have had little or no previous influence.

“I don’t believe my ideas are better than anyone else’s,” Barranda said in a statement issued Friday afternoon. “But as a member of our fiscal body and representative of the people of Fort Wayne, council’s ideas deserve to be heard.” He’s right.

Republican Tim Smith, Henry’s opponent in November, has already said he would adopt a zero-based budget process, meaning non-mandated city spending would essentially be zeroed out and rebuilt from scratch, presumably with council’s input. As a Democrat, Henry has no partisan reason to cooperate with Republicans who control seven of nine council seats. But I’ve always believed, perhaps naively, that good government is also good politics.

And a good budget — one that meets basic obligations with as little waste as possible — is crucial to the establishment and maintenance of good government. It’s no reflection on the city’s fine Controller Garry Mohr to suggest that allowing council to help craft the 2020 budget would achieve just that.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.