After a vigorous debate, a budget-conscious town council last week, on a split vote, gave town staff more authority to spend money without getting every check approved by the council.
Town Manager Debra Galbraith triggered the debate about budget oversight by seeking permission to make payments throughout the year on even sizeable purchases without always getting a final sign-off by the town council.
That request triggered a spirited discussion on the part of a council about the proper level of oversight, all in the shadow of last year when revenue declines melted through the town’s reserve fund without monthly financial reports or discussion by the council.
Galbraith has started providing quarterly financial reports to the council.
The town manager asked the council whether to implement a new policy that would allow the town staff to approve expenditures throughout the year so long as those purchases had been specifically included in the budget at the start of the year. Currently, most such items show up on the council’s consent agenda at the time of the actual purchase.
“We have items in the budget like buying a truck that we now return to the council for approval at the time of purchase,” she said. The new policy would allow staff to make the purchase, so long as money remained in the relevant account.
Councilor Ed Blair raised persistent objections to the proposed shift in policy.
He wants the ability to review the actual purchases to make sure the town bought from local merchants whenever possible.
“I like the idea of these things coming forward for us to talk about it,” he said. He cited as an example a $3,000 payment on the most recent, 20-page list of checks going to a Utah financial institution in connection with the lease of several police cars.
That provoked a discussion about “buying local” and the revelation that the council had previously approved the lease arrangement in question, since it was a contract rather than a purchase. The council still must approve all contracts.
Councilor John Wilson said he also preferred to buy local, but legally the town must “get the best price we can for the money we have.”
“We can’t discriminate” in favor of local suppliers, agreed Mayor Kenny Evans.
But Blair persisted. “I just want to bring in the idea of buy local, bank local,” he said.
Galbraith defended the proposal, saying that even without council approval of each purchase, town staff would ensure the town got the best price and the budget still had money to cover the cost.
“We don’t just pickup something and say, ‘Oh, good, let’s buy it,’” she said.
Councilor Richard Croy said “I just like the idea of the council in these economic times knowing what we’re spending money on. We’re running a tight rope — this just keeps everyone plugged into what’s going on.”
Jim Gardner rose from the audience to support the idea of continued, detailed council oversight. He said people don’t generally pay attention to the individual purchases at the time the council adopts the budget.
“I don’t think you want to use all your budget hearing time” debating the purchase of cars and copy machines, he said. “Things change. What looks good in the budget hearing might not look so good by the time the purchase comes around.”
Galbraith then seemed ready to give up the move altogether.
“I have a suggestion,” she said, “let’s just forget it. Leave it like it is and we’ll bring everything back to council.”
But Evans then supported the original suggestion.
“We need a clear and concise policy, so it’s not left to staff to wonder,” he said. He noted the council could always “tag” certain items in the budget process to make sure they came back to the council for approval — particularly large-ticket items costing more than $25,000.
Councilor Su Connell agreed. “It doesn’t add a lot of value to come back to us again, frankly.”
But Blair persisted. “I’ve had some discussions with citizens about whether this is a staff-led town or a council-led town. I like having the option for citizens to talk about (a purchase).”
The council then adopted the original recommendation that did not require town staff to bring each purchase back to the council. The council voted 5-1 in favor, with Blair in opposition and Councilor Mike Vogel absent.