Commentary: Budget process isn’t perfect, but council has a record of fiscal responsibility

The Newport Beach City Council this week approved a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The vote was 4 to 3, with Councilmen Scott Peotter, Kevin Muldoon and Duffy Duffield opposed.

I voted for it.

I agree with Peotter’s statement at the meeting that this budget has not been thoroughly vetted by the finance committee and the council, because it was presented to us under tight time constraints. That has indeed been frustrating. It’s a very large and arcane document, and we new council members very much want to get an understanding of and control over city spending.

The result is a budget that none of us new members is completely happy with.

But here’s the thing: This is not the end of it. We will continue in the coming weeks, through the finance committee and council itself, to review and revise this budget using the budget-amendment process.

There is plenty of time to keep working — deliberately and in consultation with the community, other stakeholders and staff — to achieve our budget goals.

I am encouraged that we have made many fiscally responsible decisions already:

• We have eliminated the Balboa Performing Arts Center from the capital budget, at a savings of $5.8 million in project costs and hundreds of thousands a year in future operating costs. Plus the city will get income from the sale of the property.

• We have dealt with rapidly escalating cost estimates for a West Newport community center by drawing a line in the sand on its price tag and rolling back those estimates from $34 million to $25 million.

• We are getting ready to audit the civic center project and learn lessons that I believe will save us millions on future projects.

• We are moving forward on reducing city staff this year by considering the outsourcing of several more city functions. City staffing levels also will continue to shrink through attrition. We will definitely end this next fiscal year with fewer full-time employees than the current year, even including the four police officers added to improve public safety.

• We are paying more now to reduce long-term obligations like unfunded pension liabilities. This up-front payment of nearly $9 million is a new, higher cost in the budget, and it’s what is making the 2015-16 spending plan slightly larger than the current one. But it’s also what everyone knows must be done and avoids millions in future interest costs.

These are real accomplishments that directly reflect the platform that we new council members ran on last year. We can be proud of them.

Are these changes occurring at a rate that satisfies Peotter, Muldoon and Duffield? No. And I am not satisfied either.

But I know that we are working hard and making real progress, and we’re doing it in a way that is well-considered and not disruptive to the community. And there will be many more changes in the coming weeks and months.

Then, once we go through this process, we will direct and set parameters for the city staff in the preparation of next year’s budget — something we did not have the opportunity to do this year. We will be able to set revenue and spending targets at the very beginning of the process, toward the end of this calendar year. The draft budget we get next spring will more clearly reflect our fiscal restraint and caution.

Managing a quarter-billion-dollar budget is a serious and multiyear process that involves listening to many stakeholders, reviewing program and spending plans with staff, making sometimes hard choices, and being vigilant and diligent in following through.

It’s a long road, but I’m confident we will get to where we want to be.

DIANE DIXON is mayor pro rem of Newport Beach.