Meeting deadlines: budget delays could have been avoided

Friday, January 6, 2006

Nevada is still without a 2006 budget and will remain so until at least Jan. 17. Ten more days! It's a situation that's no less than ridiculous, and could have been avoided with more preplanning.

It all began in mid-December -- No, before that. Long before that. It began when someone at city hall put off crunching those numbers for just one more day. What happened next would probably have been a comedy of errors if it had happened somewhere else. But it didn't. It happened here and it's no way to conduct business. Period.

We imagine a number of circumstances delayed various aspects of preparing the budget, until City Manager Craig Hubler found himself in the middle of December, postponing budget discussions because the numbers weren't quite in order. Now to a degree that's understandable. Preparing a city budget's a big job and we know there are a lot of variables to consider.

No matter the reason, though, the first deadline was missed and a special work session was scheduled in the short time remaining in 2005, and all might have been well -- except that on the day the session was scheduled, council members were sick and couldn't attend.

So a special meeting was conducted for the budget hearing on Dec. 22. That's awfully close to the holidays, especially when a first and second reading, usually done at separate meetings, are required to OK the budget.

But on Dec. 22, citizens had questions. Some of the numbers seemed to contradict one another, and citizens questioned pay raises and a number of other items. Questions like these send a message to the council -- the people, and the employees, want to know what your priorities are. If we don't miss our guess, these questions are really a cue to the council that it's time to evaluate goals and priorities and put them in writing. Don't set it in stone -- just provide the people and the council with the priorities and goals that will be the foundation behind the decisions the council makes.

In the wake of the questions posed on Dec. 22, the council took a vote, and the 2-1 vote in favor of the budget wasn't enough to pass it, since the charter requires a majority of the full council, which is three votes.

The council could have set a special meeting for the following week, but opted instead to put it off until the next council meeting, Jan. 3. Because there were changes in the budget he said he'd just gotten, at least one council member -- and rightly so -- wanted some time to digest the changes before giving the budget the go-ahead. As it turns out, a computer glitch appeared to complicate matters further -- the budget document that appeared on the city's Web site and in council members' packets was apparently dramatically different from the one prepared by city employees, with numbers seemingly randomly changed by some sort of unexplained technological snafu that city employees believe they've now conquered.

There are many questions, but we'll pose just two.

First, whatever happened to departmental budget presentations, explaining the budget to the council, and, more importantly, to the people in open meetings?

We're told that in the past, city officials have done just that. In work sessions, departmental representatives have gone through the budgets relating to each department, walking through the information with council members in a public meeting. No, it's not required, but it's a good idea. It's win-win. The people would have easier access to the information and don't have to pore through reams of paper to figure it out, and the city reaps the benefit of the kind of public trust that only comes from open, thorough discussion and clear documentation.

Council members are right to take their time to evaluate the budget -- especially now that the Dec. 31 deadline has passed and can't be met no matter what happens. Still, as a city, it's embarrassing to have missed such an obvious deadline by such a margin, and our charter clearly states it's the council's responsibility to pass that budget by Dec. 31.

That brings us to the second question: What does that say about the way Nevada does business? What's done is done, but what happens next -- how we learn and grow from this experience -- is an opportunity to show the world that Nevada's leaders are willing to do what it takes to grow, lead and take care of business -- inside and outside of city hall.

-- Nevada Daily Mail