Public forum without the public

The Budget Status Report and Public Forum was the first item on the agenda for Monday night’s Town Council meeting. Town Manager Roger Stancil was there at the microphone to update the council and residents on his staff’s work to fashion the fiscal 2011 town budget. Only the town had neglected to get the status report out to residents beforehand so they could show up at the meeting with the information needed for a true public forum.

Not much to a forum if you take out the information. What happened to the notice on Stancil’s budget update? I checked the town Web site at 5:30 p.m. Monday, and there were no documents to read to prepare for his presentation.
Catherine Lazorko, the town’s information officer, sent this on Tuesday afternoon in response to a question about the lack of information before the meeting: “We apologize for the delay in posting the Town Manager’s budget status report to the website. It was sent as a link in the e-news that was issued yesterday.” The e-news was sent at 10:09 p.m., more than 3 hours after Stancil gave his report.

A day late and a dollar short, if you ask me.

It will be an interesting budget, and in some respects the town will need all the help it can get, both fiscal and mental. Stancil told the council his budget will maintain the current level of services without a tax increase. The town will use budget savings, a dip into the fund balance and no increases in department budgets. Stancil said the budget will be pretty close to fiscal 2010 levels, that is, General Fund appropriations of about $48.9 million and total town expenditures of about $82.9 million.

One bit of budget drama: Stancil is keeping his fingers crossed that the county, which is in dire budget shape and is looking for every dime it can find, doesn’t switch the way it distributes sales tax money from per capita to an ad valorem system to save the county some money. That would be very bad news for Chapel Hill, which would have to make up $2.5 million.

Once again we find this council dealing with an issue of transparency. Budget preparation should be something that residents have a role in beyond just forking over the tax dollars that support the town. It’s hard to have a public forum if there’s no information available to the public. It’s difficult to study and comment on data if the data isn’t available. The town has a responsibility to get that information out in a timely manner. Now we’ve lost an opportunity for public feedback on how the town will spend taxpayers’ money.

If the council never intended to have public input on the manager’s budget work, then it should have been more up-front with taxpayers. There will be a few more meetings at which the town budget can be discussed by council and staff before a planned approval date of June 7. But the next public hearing isn’t until May 19. The Manager’s Recommended Budget is scheduled to be provided to the Council on May 10, and budget adoption is scheduled for June 7. Looks like there will not be much public input this year.

–Don Evans

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  1. Thanks Don for highlighting this issue.

    We do know, though, that residents will be providing at least one input – their property tax payments – sometime later this Fall.

    As you point out May 19th is awful late in the game. The budget is fast drying concrete.

    The case is being made, now, by the new Mayor and a few others that we can have the Library, we can fund the Lot #5 madness and meet all the other needs of Town – all without borrowing again before 2014. Roger even said the economy has turned the corner. This assessment presumably based on the rather extraordinary position Chapel Hill enjoys – an economy buoyed by UNC’s student and other spending.

    Too much “pay no attention to man behind the curtain.”

    I’m disappointed but not surprised.

  2. Don Evans

     /  April 14, 2010


    Word is the university is about to undergo a big round of layoffs. Since Stancil’s “rosy” predictions are based on the stability of the Chapel Hill economic scene and that economic scene is heavily reliant on state jobs, those layoffs could be very disruptive and undermine whatever economic stability Roger anticipates.

    Seems awfully risky to me to go adding the library debt with so much uncertainty.

  3. Agreed. Aside from all the uncertainty, taking on debt when we are so close to the ceiling is exactly what has gotten our country (individually and collectively) in this trouble to begin with. I really don’t understand why we would take on optional debt right now.

  4. Terri Buckner

     /  April 14, 2010

    My department was notified yesterday that our recurring budget has been cut by another 5%. That’s a 15% cut over the past year and a half. These are permanent cuts, not just temporary inconveniences. Four additional staff members (from our dept) got their layoff notices yesterday.

  5. Terri, very sorry to hear that. One small solace is that there are many folks in the same sad situation (the lifeboat is getting awful full, isn’t it?).

    The gap between what the Council spends and what the Town can support has been growing for almost a decade now. The velocity it has grown has really ramped up since 2005.

    It will suck if we have to hit the wall before we change our ways.

    My biggest frustration is how the size of the current and looming fiscal problems we face could have been reduced or possibly eliminated by a bit of prudence over the last 5 years.

    Even if we had prepared for this completely foreseeable state of affairs, I would have still counseled against issuing $20.41M for the Library expansion and greenways projects to position the Town better to take advantage of the eventual upturn.

    RAM’s sweet Lot #5 deal, even if the Town was flush with cash, is and always will be a terrible deal for the community.

    In any case, over the next 5 weeks the public is fairly restricted in the PUBLIC ways they can discuss the budget. There will be no PUBLIC venues to challenge Council and staff’s assumptions, projections and plans. And, as Terri and most of the readers of CHW know, Council very rarely moves on a dime on the budget.

    It’s a shame Oprah didn’t bellyache about municipal budgets instead of using cellphones in the car. In that case, we might actually get Council to pay attention and hold an immediate forum 😉

  6. Mark Marcoplos

     /  April 14, 2010

    It’s also a shame that our federal reps – Price, Hagan, and Burr have consistently voted to pour taxpayer money down the rat-hole of war in Iraq & Afghanistan, thus depriving citizens of real benefits at the local level and tying the hands of local governments.