During what turned into a tense public works department budget hearing on Thursday evening, city council members found snow removal costs from the past year scattered throughout the departmental budget under different divisions.
The division of Parks and Shade Trees, which is in charge of the upkeep of city parks, had a fiscal year 2014 overtime budget of $127,500; however, the division exceeded that amount spending $250,501. Steven Howe, assistant public works director, said a number of employees from that division were involved in snow removal.
Business administrator Nellie Pou added the recent pay increases of public works employees also contributed to the higher amount. Earlier in the year, department workers’ minimum salary was set at $25,000. However, council members were not, at least at this time, concerned over the actual costs, but more concerned about Howe’s explanation. How is it that snow removal costs, which appeared in a separate sheet in the departmental budget, fall under shade tree?
“It’s an accounting principle that you charge the money where it is actually incurring,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman. McKoy said the snow removal costs should have been placed under snow removal; it should not have been charged to different divisions. “You throw the budget off altogether,” said McKoy. The councilman said a budget transfer should have happened where the costs were placed in their rightful place.
Similarly, council members ran through another division’s budget, the facilities development division, which also had snow removal overtime. That division’s overtime budget was exceeded by 100-percent. Exact numbers could not be obtained, for Pou did not make available a copy of the division’s budget saying it was a “draft.” When asked to cite a law that disallows her from releasing the documents, Pou merely re-worded her comments saying it was a “working document” that could not be released.
McKoy said the budget is distorted with council members being unable to find a single line item that would clearly and definitively show the true amount the city spent in snow removal last winter.
“We didn’t spend shade tree money or facilities money, so why put it there?” asked McKoy. The councilman asked the budget officer Russell Forenza for an explanation. Forenza said he merely makes the budget, it is the division of accounts and control that handles the costs and where each goes.
“I just do the budget, but I don’t put in the actual numbers in those spots,” said Forenza. McKoy pressed for an explanation. Forenza said if the overtime was budgeted under snow removal, the budget would no longer remain flat.
McKoy further said instead of “diffusing” the snow removal costs throughout the budget it ought to be placed under one item. The councilman recognized it would not result in a flat budget for a certain division or department, but the overall budget would remain flat, for those costs are already accounted for simply under different items.
“I look at the street snow removal budget and I’m saying, ‘Wow, we had all this snow and we didn’t incur a lot of overtime,’” said Morris. “Now, I drill through this budget and we did incur a lot of overtime for snow removal.”
Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward councilman, said it makes little sense to intersperse a cost that should have remained under one line. “If you budget that way in any other place you would go out of business,” said Tavarez. “If an efficient city or township did it they’d be in trouble just like we are. This is no way of running a city.”
Council members also discovered cellphone costs in various divisions that were budgeted for, but never expended. Manuel Ojeda, public works director, said his budget covers about 15 cellphones for high ranking public works employees with the exception of the engineering division.
Ojeda’s answer raised questions. Why would the city budget cellphone amounts in other divisions, if the director’s budget covered for cellphones for the entire department. Even in Ojeda’s budget the $12,000 budgeted for cellular phones went unspent. Instead, the department used funds from another item to pay for cellphones in fiscal year 2014.
“If it’s being attributed to your budget then it should be zero across the other divisions,” said Morris.
Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward councilman, said “$12,000 for 15 phone seems really expensive.”
Akhtaruzzaman said the city should centralize cellphones, so that it’s one department handling the phones and the bills. Pou said that is already the case. She said the city’s purchasing division handles cellphones for all departments.
Morris said the $12,000 translates to about $800 per phone which is inexpensive. “When I look at the city council’s phones — I don’t know how many you have, but you were budgeted for $20,000,” added Forenza. The budget officer said the council was spending $14,000 on cell phones.
“I’ve never used a city cellphone,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman. Morris said council members receive phone calls 24 hours a day.
In another instance, a public works division overspent its water budget.
“$2,000 for water?” asked Morris.
“You have 31 people,” responded Forenza suggesting the employees drink a lot of water.
“To have an expense 10 times the budget for a simple thing as water is preposterous,” said McKoy.
McKoy said it’s aggravating to have a division go over the $250 water budget by ten times the amount and then going back to budgeting that same amount for 2015. The councilman took Forenza’s comment as a jest inserted inappropriately into a serious discussion.
“You’re not getting the concern,” said McKoy.
“I get the concern and I have to take the nonsense, believe me,” said a heated Forenza before storming out of the council chamber. “I understand everything that’s being said here. And I understand it’s all my fault! You can blame it all on me!”
The hearing revealed expenditures were charged in a disorganized fashion. Snow removal was out of place, charged under different divisions; cellphones were budgeted for in every division, and unspent in most despite there being 15 phones – even the division that was to list the cellphone expenditure had it under the wrong line item.
“We’re going to have to put these costs in the proper buckets,” remarked Morris.
Pou, who was assistant business administrator in the previous administration, said those were “patterns of the past” and the city will ensure every expenditure is charged under the correct line item going forward.