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City staff reports budget process is ‘transparent’ one; Council asks for more details, cross reference

By Staff | May 21, 2008

Although a bill that would have forced Florida’s local governments to provide intricate details of their annual budgets and fiscal forecasts failed to pass muster this year, Cape Coral is already well ahead of the curve in transparency, city staffers told elected officials at a Monday workshop.

In a presentation, city financial director Mark Mason pointed to the yearly public posting of the revenue manual, budget document and comprehensive annual financial report as prime examples of transparency and reminded the council that the city shows where funds are spent and acquired in 91 different entities.

“There are a lot of ways we get the information out to the public,” he said. “And we’re always available to answer anybody’s questions they may have about the budget.”

Councilmember Pete Brandt, who unsuccessfully tried to have all budget amendments sent through the citizen’s financial advisory committee at a meeting several weeks ago, took issue with Mason’s claim of transparency. Brandt pointed to an upcoming ordinance, which calls for a $156 million budget increase, as a prime example of cloudiness in the process.

“Since I have got on council, we have been asked to increase the budget by a quarter of a billion dollars,” he said.

However, budget amendments do not necessarily mean additional spending or an increase of taxes or fees, City Manager Terry Stewart argued.

“When you say you have a budget of ‘x’ number of dollars, (the public) thinks that local government is going to spend those dollars,” he said, nodding to the upcoming budget increase. “That doesn’t mean the city’s going to spend $156 million more because the great majority of that change has to do with the change in the way we report the budget based on a request that this council made. The bottom line is that much of that money is reserves and cash in specified accounts.”

Brandt also criticized the way the budget document is put together, saying that it does not logically “flow.” He told Mason that he could make the document easier to decipher if he chose to do so. Other members of council asked staffers to provide more foot notes and cross references so they could follow the spending trail more easily.

Mason explained that governmental budgeting should not be compared to the private sector because of statute requirements for reporting as well as the fact that the city’s entire budget is a compilation of dozens of funds.

“We’re not just a single entity business. We’re 91 entities that flow up into one large entity that is the city of Cape Coral,” he said, adding that the city has received the distinguished budget award for the last 17 years from the state.

While Brandt was pleased to hear that the city’s budget document is well regarded by Tallahassee, he said the government should be looking for other accolades.

“The award I would like to see you win is one from the council and the public where we say, ‘Now we completely understand,'” he said.