Editorial: City commissioners need to watch the public’s money better
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Maybe money doesn’t make the world go around, but it sure ought to make some mouths move more at Lawrence City Hall.
It is becoming clear that Lawrence city commissioners don’t spend enough time monitoring and publicly discussing the city’s finances. Properly monitoring and managing the public’s funds is among the most important responsibilities of city commissioners. But a recent article by the Journal-World illustrated how city commissioners fell short of that responsibility the past two budget seasons.
A Sunday article highlighted how the City of Lawrence had to make $5.4 million worth of transfers out of what is essentially its main savings account because the fund was violating a city-adopted policy aimed at limiting its size. The situation is analogous to your financial planner tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “It really doesn’t make sense for you to have so much money in a savings account. You could get a better return somewhere else.”
In the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems to have. Indeed, the problem here is not that the city has more than $5 million to figure out what to do with. The problem is city commissioners spent hardly any time figuring out what to do with it and made no meaningful effort to ask the public for its feedback.
Instead, city commissioners sang the same old song about how tight things are at City Hall and about how difficult the city’s budgeting process has become. So many tough choices.
That song takes on a different tone when you realize that during the last two years city revenues outpaced city expenses by such a large amount that more than $5 million worth of cash had to be stashed somewhere else.
Where did the money go? Essentially, it went from one savings account to another. The city moved it to a capital improvement reserve account, which basically is a fund to to help take care of construction, building and equipment expenses that arise.
All these priorities that the city spends so much time talking about — social service funding, sidewalk repair, affordable housing, economic development — and the city puts the extra money in another savings account? Maybe it is the responsible thing to do. The city does have a lot of infrastructure needs, although why not use the money to tackle a specific construction project, if we are falling so far behind?
That question and a whole lot of others never got asked because the City Commission never had a substantive discussion about it during the budget process this year. Instead, there was simply one Powerpoint slide in a long budget presentation that said the money would be transferred to the capital reserve account.
There was no discussion about whether some of that money could be used to eliminate the need for fees to be charged at public recreation centers, no discussion about whether it could be used to help the Lawrence Community Shelter with its budget shortfall, no discussion about whether it could be used to stave off cuts to organizations like The Chamber and the Lawrence Arts Center, no discussion about whether it could fund a plan to expand school resource officers at our public schools.
All those issues, and many more, produced hand-wringing during the last budget season. All the while, millions of public dollars needed a new home. Of course, some taxpayers also would have entertained getting some of that money back through lower taxes for the year. That didn’t get discussed either.
This is just the latest sign that city commissioners don’t have a good grasp on money matters. The latest city audit was an utter embarrassment. Over $60 million worth of adjustments had to be made to get the city’s books into compliance. On top of that, another Journal-World article reported the city’s water and sewer department has a savings account with more than $40 million in it at a time that water bills are increasing by a hefty 8%. The city still is trying to figure out how that savings account grew to that size.
Yes, the city has some mighty big savings accounts. But one is dwindling: the reserve of public trust. Commissioners can turn this around, though. A new city manager is on board. He is undoubtedly doing a deep dive on the finances of the organization he now leads. City commissioners should join him. There is a lot that needs to be explained.