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Mayor & Council Quash Public Discussion of Bleak City Mgt. Budget Report At Evening Council Meeting

Action prevents high visibility discussion of potentially embarrassing item in prime time, including testimony by Norm Ryan; Councilmembers previously discussed report in lower visibility afternoon budget workshop

(May 8, 2002) -- Mayor Beverly O'Neill and the City Council effectively quashed high visibility public discussion of a bleak mid-year budget performance report by Finance Director Bob Torrez (memo approved by City Manager Henry Taboada), ensuring it would not be discussed during the Council's main evening session on May 7.

In a surprise maneuver, and despite its presence on the Council agenda and a Councilman's public representation just hours earlier that he intended to speak during the item in the evening session, the Mayor (now waging a write-in campaign for a third term) and Councilmembers effectively stymied potentially embarrassing public discussion of the report during the Council's main evening session. LB fiscal reformer and Mayoral candidate Norm Ryan was present in the Council chamber and waiting to address the item.

City management's report (detailed a day earlier by, story on a link below) indicated several revenue sources were not performing as city management's budget (approved by the Council in Sept. '01) had assumed. The management memo warned Councilmembers that if trends did not change, City Hall could find itself roughly $6.2 million short in the current budget year with difficult budget decisions for the upcoming FY 02-03 budget (which the Council will decide after the June 02 Mayoral runoff).

When the Council reached the item, Mayor O'Neill spoke before the clerk could announce it. The Mayor said:

"Item 13 we had an hour and a half mid year budget performance report to Council at the budget workshop this morning [sic, it was from 2:00 p.m. until 3:16 p.m, salient details below] so there will not be a presentation on that this evening." Within one second, a motion was made (according to the attending City Clerk's notes) by Councilman Rob Webb and seconded by Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal. The Mayor continued, "It's been moved and seconded to receive and file the mid year budget performance report. Any comment? Please record your vote on item 13."

The motion carried 7-0 (Yes: Lowenthal, Baker, Colonna, Carroll, Richardson-Batts, Webb, Shultz. Temporarily absent: Kell, Grabinski).

Receiving and filing the report effectively prevented further public discussion of it and the Council quickly moved on.

Although the report was discussed by Councilmembers in a lower visibility afternoon "budget workshop," it was also agendized for the main evening Council meeting. 4th district Councilman Dennis Carroll explicitly said during the afternoon session that he planned to speak on the item that night.

"With respect to the revenue side, I'm going to save my comments for tonight," Councilman Carroll said. "I have some ideas and I think Councilmember Shultz began that dialogue [details below]...For now then, I'll reserve the balance of my comments until this evening."

But when the item came up that evening, Councilman Carroll didn't say anything. Nor did any other Councilmember.

LB fiscal reformer Norm Ryan said he was in the audience near the back of the room, having waited several hours to testify on the item. "I hadn't even made it to the aisle [to get the speaker's podium] by the time the Council had already voted, Mr. Ryan told afterward.

The announcement by O'Neill, declaring the Council would not discuss the agendized city management report, stunned observers because the public had every reason to assume the usual Council procedure on agendized items would be followed: staff would present its report, followed by Council and public comment.

Instead, the time elapsed for Mayor O'Neill's surprise announcement was 13 seconds, followed by the Webb-Lowenthal motion to "receive and file" the report within one second, after which the Mayor restated the receive and file motion and asked if there were comment on it, consuming just 6 more seconds, totaling 20 seconds.

"I guess the input of working taxpayers isn't wanted by this Mayor or Council," Mr. Ryan told us afterward.

During the afternoon budget workshop, 9th district Councilman Jerry Shultz asked City Finance Dir. Bob Torrez about the Nov. 2000 voter-enacted utility tax cut (Prop J, passed by nearly 70% of LB voters and championed by Mr. Ryan).

"If the utility users tax had not been reduced at all, how different would your report be today?" Councilman Shultz asked.

Mr. Torrez responded, "Each one percentage point of the utility users tax generates about $6 million, so with a 7% [utility users tax] rate facing us on October 1, that's basically $18 million less revenue. So I would have $18 million to present to you today had it not been for the UUT tax reduction."

Shultz noted that he had suggested last year that the utility tax be attached to a "trigger" mechanism so that "in good times we give it back, [but] in bad times it's there to use...and now we don't have that."

Commenting after the evening's non-discussion of budget issues, Mr. Ryan said, "It would be absurd if they [the Council] try to blame [City Hall's budget shortfall] on Prop J -- remember, they increased their spending as Prop J was being implemented." He added, "If there's a shortfall, it's that they spent too much money, not that there was too little money coming in."

Mr. Ryan also noted that the bulk of the budget shortfall came from natural gas, "so while they were telling us they were trying to get the prices down, they were banking on it staying high...and now they're disappointed in having a shortfall."

As for Shultz's comments about the utility tax cut, Mr. Ryan said, "Councilman Shultz needs to give it up. It was enacted by nearly 70% of voters not because I was so masterful a campaigner. They voted for it because the Council lacks credibility on the other side of the issue from me." He added, "The fact Councilman Shultz would even bring this up validates my point: even after it's passed, they still don't get it."

Like Mayor O'Neill, Mr. Ryan is running a write-in campaign for Mayor. Ryan finished third in the April 9 election to first place finisher O'Neill and second place finisher Vice Mayor Dan Baker.

During the afternoon budget workshop, 8th district Councilman Rob Webb said he was glad city management has scheduled a May 14 budget workshop to discuss public safety and police staffing issues, Councilman Webb said:

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity on May 14 to hear issues on police staffing, which has been one of those issues that I have at least said publicly and intend to say [are] my budget priorities so to speak in a public fashion, and would encourage that discussion amongst all my colleagues here in the public, because it's the public that we're spending this money for and they should get to know what our priorities are."

Since Sept. 11, the Council has continued spending under pre-Sept. 11 budget assumptions which the Council voted to adopt after September 11 (votes in mid and late September '01).

Details of city management's mid year budget performance memo are separately reported on at: City Management Discloses Bleak City Revenues, Warns LB Is Now In Situation Similar In Some Ways To Recession of Mid-90's.

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