It's time to crash the party. With less than a month remaining for the New Orleans City Council to adopt a balanced budget (the charter-mandated deadline is Dec. 1) and with the city facing a projected $68 million shortfall, New Orleanians need to let their elected officials know what their priorities are and demand accountability. It may seem we're encouraging citizens to join the budget fray late in the game, but remember, we are the ones footing the bill. Until now, most citizens have watched this game from the sidelines, but we should bear in mind that politics in a democracy is a participatory undertaking, not a spectator sport.
According to Mayor Ray Nagin's 2010 proposed budget, this is the third year the city has used the process known as Budgeting for Outcomes (BFO). Essentially, BFO seeks to determine how much money is available, prioritize the results taxpayers want, allocate resources toward those results, identify performance measures and then monitor performance. The Government Finance Officers Association considers the process a "recommended practice." On paper, BFO includes a lot of public input — but not the way the Nagin administration has used it.
To ensure the public's involvement throughout the BFO process, a "results team" of community leaders, City Councilmembers and department heads is supposed to prioritize and format outcomes the public wants most. By the proposed budget's timeline, that group began meeting in April, but, as pointed out in the recent Office of Inspector General's report on the city's 2009 budget process, there were no community leaders or councilmembers on the team in 2008 or 2009. Thus, as the budget process progresses — the city has paid $2.5 million to Public Financial Management Inc. to implement BFO — the administration alone has decided "what the public wants." That is not budgeting for outcomes — unless the desired "outcome" is less transparency, which, of course, is a hallmark of the Nagin administration.
So what should the public expect from the mayor's 2010 budget? The Nagin administration ranks as priorities public safety, the city's recovery and rebuilding, opportunities for youth and high-performing government. While that last one sounds like an oxymoron, the first three are certainly chief concerns of most New Orleanians. The mayor proposes to fund public safety (police, fire and emergency services) with $191 million; recovery and quality-of-life agencies with $80.6 million; and "high-performing government" (which includes debt service) with $180 million. Meanwhile, programs for youth get a pitiful 2 percent of the city's $483 million general fund.
BFO also requires that each department establish key performance measures so the public can gauge successes and failures. Unfortunately (and this would be funny if it weren't so tragic), under "Result Area: High Performing Government," the two most common measures cited are "Measures not available" and "To be determined in 2010."
Finally, when the entire BFO process was concluded, one of the mayor's chief recommendations for reducing the $68 million deficit was a 10 percent cut across all departments. That means every city agency will suffer regardless of where it stands on the ladder of public priorities or whether it is achieving its stated goals. Again, this is not budgeting for outcomes. Rather, it's budgeting for Ray Nagin to skedaddle on May 3, 2010 — and dump this entire mess on the next mayor and council.
The process isn't over, however. New Orleans deserves better. The council's budget hearings begin this week with at least eight scheduled thus far: the first on Monday, Nov. 9. That means there's still time for civic engagement. Councilwomen Shelley Midura and Stacy Head are hosting town hall meetings this Wednesday and next (Nov. 11 and 18) in the Council Chamber to discuss the budget hearings. They invite residents to monitor the council meetings and speak out on major issues.
We warn our readers that budget hearings are not the most exciting spectacle. But, as the Inspector General's report notes, "The budget is the single most important municipal document affecting the lives of citizens." If you have the time (we hope to have given you the inclination), here's your chance to play in city government's version of the Super Bowl.