ONTARIO — As the City of Ontario gets nearer to this year’s budget committee meetings, March 10, the city manager is mulling a bigger change: moving to a rolling two-year budget. This is different from a biennium budget, in which budget approvals only take place every other year.
City Manager Adam Brown explained his goal is to keep meeting every year and approving the new year’s budget, but in this case it would be “two years out” and the committee would tasked with “revising next year and adding the following year.”
He said he expects it will be a “similar time frame for the budget committee,” in projecting spending and revenue two years out.
One of Brown’s goals has been to work on the budget earlier each year, and in 2019-20 year, it was pushed from June to May. This year, he would like to see the budget get approved in April.
The goal: start planning earlier and earlier. While Brown would ideally like to have the budget done six months early, he says he’s not sure if that’s practical with revenue forecasts from the state.
“In most best practices, the farther you can budget out, the more stable your community is,” Brown says.
He said he has been in a lot of places in the past 10 to 12 years that have seen cuts, adding that the city is not in a position now to layoff anybody.
Brown says he’s talked to some of the councilors one-on-one about it, but has not brought it up in open session. He does not believe this year’s planning will switch to the rolling two-year cycle, as “this will have to be a decision supported by the budget committee and council. I have not spoken with them about it yet.”
There are no current vacancies on the budget committee, Brown says, but there is one member who will not be able to attend all of the meetings.
City used to do biennium budgeting
In 2010, the Ontario City Council approved its last biennium budget for July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013, according to Kari Ott, financial director for the city. After that budgeting was switched to an annual basis.
A check with former members of the council explains why.
“We couldn’t really predict two years,” said Charlotte Fugate, who served on the council for about 10 years.
The council eventually went to an annual budget to keep an eye on expenses.
“Because we were so short on money all the time, we couldn’t anticipate where we would be every year,” Fugate said. “It was really difficult, too, when there was turnover every two years on council, with people coming and going, not really able to make educated decisions.”
Once the city went to an annual budget and contracted out the city’s finance department, things got better, she says.
In a biennium budget “you really had to be on top of it.”
Fugate, who worked with Brown for a time while she still served on the Council credited Brown for his knowledge.
“Adam has a lot of skill with budget, and has more knowledge that we’ve had [in the city manager position] for a long time,” Fugate said. “And we do have Kari Ott.”
Former Mayor Ron Verini, who also served as a councilor on the City Council for a total tenure of about 10 and a-half years, echoed Fugate’s sentiment about Ott and Brown.
“Without question, Kari helped get us back on track,” Verini said. “Kari Ott is a diamond that really pulled us out of a lot of the financial problems we had because when Ott and that group came on board then all of a sudden we actually had a clearer vision as far as what our finances were that we had to work with.”
And during Verini’s tenure, he estimates the city shuffled through about five or six different city managers.
“When we found Adam Brown, that was another tremendous turn for the positive for our community and city staff,” he said.
As far as switching the way things are done, Verini said he personally felt more comfortable with an annual budget “because it seems like it gives us a closer handle on what’s happening on the ground right now. Looking forward two years for me is maybe a little challenging, and maybe I’m jaded because of what we’ve been through in the past.
Verini said during his time on the council, the city was “going through tremendous struggle of finances for the community,” and also dealt with “all of these problems on a monthly basis.”
He saw the city cut myriad services, including funding the library, closing the golf course, closing the pool, cutting back on maintaining roads and even going through freezes on hiring and wage hikes “because we were in such a financial crunch.”
And in the last year and a half of his tenure which came to a close at the end of 2018, Verini says the city was “down to basic services for our community.”
Now that all those expenses are gone, and the city has contracted out its accounting and public works department “we’re doing better,” Verini points out.
He credits the expertise in leadership happening simultaneously.
In the past we always had quality people but they were not all situated at the same time, Verini says. Now, however, he said it seems they are.
“If you take every single department, then we have quality at the head, and that filters right through the staff and gives our community a tremendous leg up — more than ever before.”