Where Did the Money Go, and Who Knew?

Thursday’s local newspaper The Tulsa World misleads its readers about the problems with the Mayor’s budget.  The headline reads“No Cuts Planned for Mayor’s Staff.”  Reading the headline, one would assume that the Mayor is just being stubborn and is too good to take his own medicine after asking the Police and Fire departments to take pay cuts.  Not exactly.

Terry Simonson, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff has described the recently discovered budget shortfall for the Mayor’s office as under funded some $300,000 to just over $700,000 from $900,000 on the previous year’s staffing and funding levels.  Pat Connelly, City Budget Director, in the Finance Department, had come to him in the third week of December, after the new Mayor had been in office, and warned him that the Mayor’s office would be unable to make April if things remained unchanged.

In a former life I was Mr. Connelly’s assistant for nearly four years and one of the last names on the “credits page” of the City Budget. I was an integral part of the production of the budget document and witness to the process that was taken to arrive at the final Mayoral budget presentation to the Council; which is prepared in advance for the next fiscal year.

In the fall “budget season” begins, usually in late September, or early October.  The process gets started with the notices going out to all the department heads about the items that need to be reviewed for the upcoming budget cycle.  At this time, the analysts in the budget and planning departments are working on forecasting and trends in the revenue and spending in the City.

Over the course of the next few months, the departments will send in proposals for budget changes.  At this time some early preliminary meetings with the department heads will take place to work out a schedule for the meetings with the Mayor and the budget staff.

By the time February arrives, the budget department meets daily with department heads to go over the details of each line item proposed in the budget document.  At the same time the Five-Year Plan is reviewed to gain approval from the Budget Manager.

In May, a prototype of the budget document is produced and sent to every department head and each Council member.  This period is for approvals, re-writes, and changes to the document to be approved in June.

It is during May that the most meetings occur with the departments and the budget analysts spend the most time reviewing the data with the people who will have the ultimate say it what goes in and what gets left off.  May is also the time when the projections for the next year’s taxes are looked at to make sure the appropriations are within tolerance for what can be expected in tax revenues, especially sales tax.

The budget is usually published and adopted by Council on or around June 21st to be in effect until the next June.

Every line item of the budget is scrutinized and gone over for at least nine months out of the year.  Every place that the administration needs to see is vetted and re-vetted by their aides, by the City Clerk, by the Budget staff, and especially by the Budget Manager.  The staff makes recommendations, and then ultimately does what the Mayor’s office wants.

In any year where a budget shortfall is going to hit, the budget staff will know by July or August at the latest.  During the years I worked in the department, I knew about cutbacks, shortfalls, staffing decreases, and potential time-bombs months before anyone even suspected a problem was coming.  One of the worst shortfalls in the recent City history at the time, during the 2000-2001 fiscal year was known shortly after the budget was approved in early July.

Former Mayor Kathy TaylorIf the question is, who knew what, when; especially with the budget of the Mayor’s office, then the answer is the Mayor, and the Clerk, and the Budget Director.  It would have been impossible to miss a $300,000 shortage from a previous year for staffing and compensation which is essentially like loosing 30% of the funding.  Since the Mayor’s office is a very visible line item, it gets more attention than many other departments with similar funding and staffing levels.

I know that writing this may cause feathers to get ruffled.  However, it is incumbent upon me to tell what I know and how I know it.  Budget problems are usually a combination of bad forecasting of tax revenue; which used to be a constant 3%-7% growth every year for the former Savage administration, with no regard of the possibility of flat or even negative growth; low tax receipts; and flat or negative population growth.  Barring a major financial disaster, like what happened during the real Great Depression, the budget is a relatively predictable annual event.

The answer is the Mayor’s office was purposely under funded.  The motivation can be guessed by others, but I have witnessed what it takes to make the $550+ million document, and I say shame on those who either did not see this coming or who did and looked the other way.