SUNNYSIDE — With just two councilors absent and all department heads accounted for, the city 2020 budget process was launched at 9 a.m. sharp this past Saturday in Prosser. The budget workshop was co-led by City Finance Director, Elizabeth Alba and City Manager, Martin Casey, with Mayor Julia Hart presiding. Councilmen Craig Hicks and Ron Stremler were absent.
The council was offered a broad review of the city’s history of income and expenditures; of audit findings and improvements, as well as highlighted summaries of one-time capital funds and past council directives, during the interactive, open session. One member of the public attended.
The weekend meeting was the first of eight planned assemblies designed to share information and discussion towards an upward recalibration of the city’s weak bottom line. Council is required by law to approve its annual budget no later than Dec. 31.
The overarching messages which Alba and Casey emphasized throughout the first potion of the session, were a strong understanding of the city’s past history and practices, a grounding of the many financial operating and reporting improvements which have transpired under Alba’s leadership, beginning five years ago. The current status of budget performance to date, was also reviewed.
A second large ask by Alba, Casey, and affirmed by Mayor Hart, was the request to council to adjust the way it thinks about the city’s recent financial history.
Although the city has received citations over consecutive years by the Washington State Auditor’s office, five in 2012, those issues are two years resolved and non-recurring
According to Alba, all lingering citations were resolved by 2016, but a new finding, one of financial instability was generated in 2017.
“Historically, we have a come a long way. That is the story we are trying to tell,” said Alba.
Echoing Alba’s sentiments, Hart, concurred, “We should be proud of the great progress and look at ourselves differently. We have turned a substantial corner.”
Alba also noted the State’s auditors were at her city hall office the end of last week, and will continue into next week, reviewing the 2018 books.
The 2017 finding received by the city on Oct. 18, 2018, according to the budget background documents, called out the high risk of low ending General Fund balance, “The City’s position places it at risk of not meeting its financial obligations or providing services at current levels.”
The finding continues on, “. . . there is a declining financial condition, and no formal plan to improve this condition. Cash balance in 2017, was $52,639 compared to $945,932 ending balance in 2014.
Alba and Casey both discussed the appropriateness of this finding. The two workshop leaders agreed the city has been in a financial spiral for some time. They concurred, despite cuts and adjustments to match declining revenues, the city has simultaneously seen an increase in growth of services and coupled with inflation.
Another part of the difficulty in keeping financial stability and oversight strong throughout the years, noted Councilman Jim Restucci, was, “. . . what, 16 managers in 10 years?”
The second portion, post lunch portion of the workshop was slated for discussion between Alba, Casey, the council and department heads. A “what if we do nothing different budget was scheduled for presentation, as well as council and department head “Requests for Budget Enhancement.”
The next budget discussion meeting is scheduled for Sept. 30.