PA budget process seems to be greatly improved

Published 11:04 am Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A budget is a financial plan, but it is also much more. Many businesses do a strategic plan in conjunction with their annual budget because charting a path into the future is about making choices: choosing when to spend money, choosing when to wait until a later date to begin a project.   If the budgeting process is flawed, it can mean wrong choices and unrealized opportunities than can spell the difference between success and failure for a business — and also for a city.

For the past several years the budgeting process in the city of Port Arthur did not appear to be thoughtfully planned nor well executed. The finance director was shuffling through notes grasping for answers to Council’s questions during budget workshops for the past two years. The city’s finances became so out of control that audits required by law were more than a year behind and citizens became so frustrated with the financial state of the city that a petition drive to require a forensic audit successfully reached the required number of signatures to force action.

The budgeting process this year, the first under new city manager Brian McDougal, is different. With the assistance of interim Finance Director Jerry Dale, the 2015-16 budget proposal was completed and posted on the city’s Web site for council members and citizens to review a week before the first budget workshop.

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The citizens who initiated the petition drive for the forensic audit asked where the city’s money has gone. They wanted to know why, with the industrial tax base the city of Port Arthur has, there is no money to repair pothole-riddled streets. A significant part of the answer to that question was given to council in last week’s budget workshop. The city’s Water and Sewer Department has siphoned $45 million from the city’s general fund in years of borrowing. Even 10 percent of that would fix a lot of streets.

McDougal didn’t pull any punches during the presentation of the budget, describing how poor hiring practices led to thieves on the payroll and how the concept of the city staff being in place to serve the citizens had been turned topsy turvy. He made it clear that mediocrity; stealing and drug use will not be tolerated. No business would tolerate such things and survive. The city shouldn’t either.

The council will have at least one more workshop in which to ask questions and make decisions about the city’s spending plans and direction for the coming year. The foundation laid by McDougal and Dale in preparing the budget proposal gives council members a clearer vantage point from which to make those decisions.