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Budget Committee members say they need more info

The city of Ashland will continue its progress through a two-year budget process Thursday while fending off contentious questions from the citizens committee supposed to help formulate the budget.

Ashland City Council and Mayor John Stromberg have been engaged in a sometimes combative exchange with the Citizens Budget Committee, a panel of seven citizens selected by the council, about the budget process.

The situation came to a head when the council conceptually approved five new officers for the police department without specifically budgeting the estimated $560,000 it would take to accomplish the hiring.

Budget Committee members, including chair Dave Runkel, questioned whether the city had overstepped in approving the hiring without first consulting the group tasked with advising the council on how it should budget the next two years.

“It left the Budget Committee out of the loop, it seems confusing,” says Budget Committee member Garrett Furuichi.

Stromberg has stated the criticism is the result of "a misinterpretation of state budget law but an understandable one. ... Budget Committee members will have ample opportunity to question and comment on all financial aspects of the official budget once it has been prepared and published by the budget officer."

In past years, the Budget Committee began the process of meeting and considering months in advance of the hearings, according to members. The budget itself was from a base comparison of year-to-year.

But this year, information has been harder to come by, according to committee members.

“I’m going back and comparing on my own. It’s a task that’s daunting, time consuming and confusing. It raises a lot more questions,” says Furuichi. “We want those questions and we want the due diligence, we want to make sure there’s reasonable expectations.”

Runkel and committee member Shaun Moran have raised issues of transparency.

“How can you tell me to approve a budget without 70 percent of the budget detail?” said Moran of not being able to get details about personnel costs when he went to City Hall to ask for it. “I know it’s not my job to set the salaries, but I should be knowledgeable.”

Moran says increases in city staffing and budget during a time of an uncertain economy concerns him.

“City government is the largest it’s been with 220 people and that doesn’t include the new police officers or possible fire department staff,” says Moran. “It’s gone from $95 million to $142 million annually. That’s a 50.42 percent increase. For what?”

The committee’s frustration, in part, says Furuichi, is that he feels the committee is being dismissed. “We have a lot of talent on the Budget Committee. They have strong financial backgrounds.”

Among those members are:

• Saladin Amery, managing director of an international firm, Peris Capital Advisers. Prior to that he worked as a managing director of Bank of America.

• Furuichi, a small business owner in Ashland with a master’s degree in corporate finance. He was the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department’s budget officer, overseeing its annual budget of $65 million.

• Paula Hyatt has a master’s degree in business management and was a senior account manager for Accredo Health Group in Memphis, Tennessee, prior to moving to Ashland.

• Mary Cody has a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and was an internal auditor for the state of California. She oversaw audits of the state’s $34 billion Medi-Cal program.

• Runkel has a Bachelor of Science degree from Penn State, was a reporter for 20 years covering finance and served on the Bed and Breakfast Network. He currently owns a Bed and Breakfast in Ashland.

The council filled a vacancy on the committee May 2, appointing James Nagel out of a field of five applicants.

Other candidates for the committee position claim they were not interviewed by councilors or questioned about their applications.

Mayor Stromberg said he could not comment on the process.

“We’re supposed to not be talking about the budget until it’s publicly presented Thursday night,” he said.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.