Killeen’s city council passed a budget last week — on time and by a unanimous vote.
Considering the dissension and lack of progress the council had displayed over most of the previous six weeks, Tuesday’s budget adoption was both heartening and surprising.
Still, the process that got the council to the finish line was hardly efficient or transparent. Ultimately, the document that received the council’s stamp of approval is more a reflection of frantic, last-minute maneuvering than deliberate, reasoned policy decisions.
And in the end, the 2017 budget still contains a $1 million shortfall — money that will have to be siphoned from the city’s dwindling emergency reserves.
Many would argue it’s the best the council could do under the circumstances. After all, the council learned in late June that the city was looking at a $7.2 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year. So, by comparison, a $1 million funding gap doesn’t seem so bad.
Still, the council could have — and should have — done better in achieving a sensible, balanced budget.
And it’s likely council members could have produced a better spending plan, had they received the information they needed, in full and in a timely fashion.
Instead, the convoluted, piecemeal process orchestrated by interim City Manager Ann Farris put the council at a decided disadvantage.
It started with her presentation — two weeks late — of a budget document that gave the council no direction, irresponsibly calling for a nearly 10 percent spending increase while recommending drawing down the city’s reserve fund by nearly 40 percent to cover the shortfall.
It continued with Farris’ exhaustive series of budget tutorials, which initially ignored the obvious — cutting spending — in favor of looking for more money.
By the time council members finished hearing lengthy, detailed presentations on each city department, they were on information overload, with still no clear direction on how to proceed.
Also, Farris’ proposed budget factored in money that had not yet been approved by the council — including reimbursement for certificates of obligation and revenue from rescinding the city’s discount for early payment of property taxes. It also relied heavily on the anticipated passage of a transportation utility fee to produce $5 million in revenue. In the end, only the tax discount measure passed.
Basing a municipal budget on assumptions is hardly a sound fiscal policy, and council members must recognize this in reflecting on the process just completed.
The budget the council adopted Tuesday was a product of cutbacks and compromises — including the last-minute agreement that reduced the controversial funding cut to the city’s library department — and members are to be commended for their efforts to find common ground.
But the financial problems that necessitated the tough choices with the current budget will only be magnified in coming years, unless city spending is reined in and revenue streams are increased.
That means work on the 2018 budget can’t wait until next summer.
Indeed, one council member said several members had expressed an interest in looking at next year’s budget as early as November. The lawmaker also said some members had agreed to work to identify further savings, as well as looking at costs on a quarterly basis, and soliciting residents’ input on city spending priorities.
Surely, crafting a responsible, workable budget should be a year-round process.
As such, council members should move forward with interviewing and hiring an experienced city manager who can make proactive budgeting a priority.
Members also need to quickly lay the groundwork for a forensic audit to address any lingering questions about the city’s shifting funds and dwindling balances. The council — and the city’s taxpayers — can’t get an accurate picture of Killeen’s financial health until the practices of past administrations are fully brought to light.
Certainly, passing the 2017 budget was a considerable challenge. But much larger challenges lie ahead.