October 28, 2021

With Your Vote, Lets Hope Pocatello Doesn’t Remain the Same

By:  P.A.G.E. Cofounder Heather Disselkoen

“What’s Not Reasonable are spending choices made outside what the average Pocatello citizen might spend on a similar purchase.”

Custom cabinetry and granite countertops ($14,775); new furniture (Legal:  $7,098; HR: $4,574; Police: $1,168; Fire: $10,708); chairs for Council chambers ($1,195); Refrigerator ($1,699).  These are just a few of the recent city expenditures.  More perplexing expenses include:  Sandpiper ($584); Café Tuscano ($236) and Texas Roadhouse ($242).

The public understands operating a city is expensive.  The 56-page September Claims report contained purchases of $3,708,002 with $577,123 of that in purchasing card purchases.  Our city organization needs equipment, materials and supplies to complete their work – repairs or replacements will also be necessary.  That’s reasonable.

What’s not reasonable are spending choices made outside what the average Pocatello citizen might spend on a similar purchase.  Many were angered to learn of the recent office renovations involving custom cabinetry and granite countertops.  This decision is certainly not reflective of all spending, but it’s absolutely questionable when you consider the decision in light of the city’s large deficit.  To avoid layoffs and balance the FY22 budget, $1M in capital improvement revenue was reallocated and large cuts to capital expenditures/ improvements were necessary.

Equally difficult to understand is why after the CFO cautioned departments to watch their remaining FY21 spending, a remodel of the Building Department was undertaken.  Council never discussed or approved it within the FY21 budgeting process.  Why was Council excluded from decisions regarding a remodel and prior to any discussion about the future of the City Hall building?  Some of those costs include:  Labor, materials, framing costs ($27,946), department lighting ($2,804) and Power, data, essential lighting ($7,827) – all in addition to thousands in new flooring (which was discussed/approved for FY21.)

“The current Council majority prefers to set the budget and hand off a vast majority of financial decisions and oversight to the Mayor and Department heads—no questions asked…”

When your property tax dollars leave your wallet, they are entrusted to the taxing entity levying them.  Does that taxing entity get to decide how the money is spent with no accountability to the public?  No.

Our Constitution set up a system of checks and balances to ensure no one area of the government gains too much power, especially over public monies.  We have representation on Council to ensure responsible use of public money.  This doesn’t mean Council should micromanage every expense, but they are tasked with setting the budget and ensuring sound financial policies based upon best practices are both in place and enforced.  To fulfill these duties, Council must have access to accurate reports, receive regular communication and be able to confirm adherence to policies.

This is the crux of the division within current Council—to what degree does the council exercise that financial oversight?  The current Council majority prefers to set the budget and hand off a vast majority of financial decisions and oversight to the Mayor and Department heads—no questions asked—only weighing in on those spending approvals that are statutorily required to come before Council.  The Council minority strongly believes it is their fiduciary responsibility to ensure public monies are spent wisely, policies followed and to have a role in city financial decision-making to offer more fiscal transparency.

The Council hasn’t had access to the necessary, detailed reports to “keep eyes on” City spending.  They’ve received three detailed reports to date.  In part, this is due to the current institutional view that once a budget is approved, that pot of money is for spending “however” the experts (Mayor and department heads) choose.  It seems oversight isn’t welcomed.

“Like it or not, the Mayor is accountable to the Council for departmental spending.”

Assuming reasonable explanations exist for questionable expenses, shouldn’t Council members be well informed in order to answer constituent questions and not be in the dark to the same degree as the public?  If a purchase is “justified” as the Mayor proclaimed last month regarding the high-dollar office remodels, he needs to provide justification to the Council without defensively overreacting.  Transparency and consistency of policy is also key to building trust.  Why are there no written policies governing outlying expenses such as restaurant charges?   Like it or not, the Mayor is accountable to the Council for departmental spending.  To refuse to answer questions, says everything.  The public needs to know those entrusted with the use of public monies are being watched.  That’s accountability and that’s why we must elect individuals who respect checks and balances and will fulfill their respective fiduciary roles.

During the October 14, 2021 Work Session, the outgoing CFO reviewed city financial policies and made numerous recommendations/suggestions to the Council to improve those policies.  It was evident, some policies are not being adhered to and/or enforced and some policies lacked the teeth necessary to bring departments into alignment.  He also stated the city violated current financial policy in order to balance the FY22 budget – a fact the minority members tried urgently to get the other members of council to acknowledge and correct.

Looking back at a 2016 ISJ Editorial, “What Did We Learn From ‘Pavegate’?”

“Somehow during the past three years — at least — council members seem to have become less important in the realm of keeping Pocatello running smooth and transparent.  It would be unfair to blame Mayor Blad — or former mayors . . . for any perceived weakening of the City Council.  The blame rests with the inhabitants of the Gate City who elect council members.  We should expect our City Council to not only work with whoever is mayor, but to be the eyes and ears of the community when it comes to shaping city policy and monitoring the actions of city employees.  The city of Pocatello is one of the largest employers in our community behind Idaho State University, the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District and Portneuf Medical Center.  City government is big business.  And the City Council is the board of directors.”

This speaks truth.  We play a large role, too.  We need to choose council members willing to be our eyes and ears and a Mayor amicable to financial transparency.  Unfortunately, Council members have continued to abdicate their role and until recently, we allowed them.  That began to shift two years ago.  More and more citizens have opened their eyes to the reality that exists within city government and now seek representation that serves them.  Criticism is not negativity – it’s narrowed and focused on improvement with the goal of making something better.  With your votes, let’s hope Pocatello doesn’t remain the same for another four years.  Let’s improve it.  That’s the point!

 

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