City Council on members today soundly rejected the idea of hiring their own budget analyst to help them prioritize public spending, despite arguments that the post would help the council act as a check on the mayor.
“This is not some vague idea,” Councilwoman Mary Mulhern told her colleagues. “I feel it is an abdication of our responsibility not to do this.”
Mulhern and Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin, who proposed hiring the analyst, were on the losing side of the 5-2 vote.
On the winning side, Councilman Harry Cohen said now is not the time to add to the city’s costs, especially with Tampa facing another multimillion-dollar deficit. The City Council operates on a budget of $1.2 million – and faces cuts of up to $26,000 next year.
“The time when I would be interested in looking at this position is when we’re growing again, and there’s more money to spend,” Cohen said.
Money that might be spent on a budget analyst would be better used for parks or code enforcement, Cohen said.
Today’s vote was the second attempt to revive the budget position since the council let it fall vacant 15 years ago. Mulhern proposed filling the position shortly after taking office in 2007, but never got a formal vote.
Since then, the council has relied on a volunteer citizens committee to review the budget each year and offer advice. That committee has gone from meeting a couple times a year to meeting year-round. Each council member appoints a member.
But the bottom line remains same: committee members are volunteers and not experts on city finances, Capin said. A paid analyst could help them as well, she said.
“We’re putting a lot of weight on volunteers,” Capin said. “They don’t have to be here. They could all be gone tomorrow.”
The city’s charter lets the City Council hire its own attorney and its own budget analyst. So far, only the attorney job is filled, and that by a part-time hire.
Former Councilwoman Jan Platt, who helped write the city’s charter in the 1970s, said the budget analyst was seen as a way to ensure the council could balance the power of the executive mayor.
Council members said today the council’s cordial relations with Mayor Bob Buckhorn make the analyst unnecessary. City Council members regularly question the city’s department heads about issues facing their constituents.
“If we have something that we’re concerned about, there’s nothing stopping us from asking the audit department to take a look,” said Councilwoman Lisa Montelione.
Capin and Mulhern countered that there’s no guarantee relations with the mayor’s office will remain as friendly as they are now.
“We do not work for the mayor,” Mulhern said. “And the administration staff does not work for us. They do not have to answer to us.”
Capin was careful not to be seen beating up on the city’s staff.
“The issue is not that they don’t answer questions,” she said. “They answer every question that you have. The key is knowing what question to ask to elicit a good response.”
A budget analyst could help the council know which questions to ask, she said.
A smart budget analyst could find enough waste in the city budget to cover the cost of the job, Mulhern argued.
After more than an hour, Council Chairman Charlie Miranda called a halt to the debate – adding a little warning about an issue he has debated three times during his time on the council.
“I don’t want to see this go on to another meeting and another meeting and another meeting with no resolution,” Miranda said. “Vote on this item and put it behind us.”