Harlan: Council should explain new budgetary direction

Like many parents, I am often questioned by my children about my decisions.

"Why do I have to do my homework now?"

"Why are you making me clean my room?"

"Why are you wearing that outfit, Dad?"

While I can invoke my parental prerogative to just say, "Because I said so," it's not a very satisfying response for any of us.

Costa Mesa is beginning to publicly discuss its annual budget (city staff has been working on this for more than six months), and this process is bound to elicit questions by the community about why the City Council is making certain decisions.

The city's budget is, essentially, a policy document. It sets forth the city's annual priorities and identifies how our revenues should be spent for municipal services, capital improvements and other obligations. Like any comprehensive policy planning effort, the budget-making process should be open, transparent and inclusive.

At the council's first budget study session May 8, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer requested that staff provide council with his full wishlist of projects and programs to evaluate, even if it demonstrated a significant deficit in the preliminary budget.

I agree that the council should start the process with all of its options on the table. This is a policy-making process, and they are the city's policymakers. The responsibility for preparing a balanced budget lies squarely with them.

However, the council (and community) would benefit by taking two simple steps to make the complex process clearer and more efficient so that we end up with a realistic budget.

First, the council should seek the professional advice of our highly competent and seasoned staff. Rather than just directing them to assemble spreadsheets and present the information, the council should respect and take advantage of their knowledge and experience. Our budget and finance staff has ably guided prior councils through several municipal budget processes, and they are an invaluable resource. Ask their opinion and listen to them.

Second, the council should establish a set of guiding principles — the rules that govern how budget decisions will be made. These guiding principles would be used to test whether the final budget actually supports the community's priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

For example, the council may want to state as a principle that it will not raise taxes or city fees (e.g., business license fees) to augment revenues. Or it may want to prohibit the use of any fund balance. Or it may want to limit capital improvement spending only for critical infrastructure needs. In any case, the council should state them plainly and openly in writing.

This exercise is important for a few reasons. It would establish a deliberate process with ground rules that everyone can follow. Community members would understand, in no uncertain terms, what is guiding the council's decision making. As well, it would promote transparency and accountability.

The guiding principles would operate as reference points for the community — the overarching rationale — so that we could assess whether the elected officials actually stuck to the principles. It would also help minimize capricious and impulsive decisions.

Of course, I wouldn't expect the council to adhere strictly to all the principles. I recognize that the budget-making process is complex and based on a number of assumptions. But using the principles as a guide establishes some common ground for the council, city staff and community.

So if the councilmen want to double our capital-improvement budget this year, then I'd like to know why. If they think we need more funding for outside legal services, then I'd like to know why. And if they want to reduce service levels, then I'd also like to know why.

For all Costa Mesans, "Because I said so" is not an acceptable response.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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