Killeen’s current budget crisis didn’t happen overnight.
As Interim City Manager Ann Farris noted, the $8 million shortfall the City Council must confront in crafting the municipal 2016-17 budget is the product of several city councils and managers.
That said, it has been Farris’ job for the past three years to oversee the finance department, and it’s likely she failed to recognize some red flags along the way.
For example, the city has had declining balances in its general fund and enterprise funds since 2013.
In addition, several council members were frequently unable to obtain timely financial data or answers to legitimate budget questions from city officials.
Also, local news accounts repeatedly questioned the city’s financial health and lack of transparency, including the city’s continuing policy of not allowing department heads to talk to media.
Most importantly, the city is on its fourth finance director since 2012 — a scenario that has undoubtedly contributed to instability and lack of continuity in managing and monitoring the city’s finances.
For this last reason alone, Farris should have been paying extra attention to the city’s bottom line. As a longtime seasoned administrator — having served as deputy superintendent of the Killeen Independent School District — Farris should have the skills necessary to deal with department heads and stay on top of any problems that arise.
Yet less than six weeks before the council was scheduled to adopt a budget and tax rate for the coming fiscal year, Farris dropped the sobering news that the city faced a serious revenue shortfall. Consequently, members were afforded little time to make the difficult choices needed to balance the budget.
Now, as Farris told council members, everything is on the table. Options include a tax increase, bond issuance, staffing cuts and reductions in city services. Certainly, many of the choices facing the council are painful ones, and every proposed expenditure must be scrutinized.
Given that knowledge, it’s surprising that Farris sat quietly as the council discussed a proposed $30,000 pay increase for her — just two days before Farris made her June 30 budget presentation.
Mayor Pro Tem Brockley Moore proposed the increase — from $145,294 to $178,532 annually — since Farris was still working at her assistant city manager’s salary since being named interim city manager on April 5, when Glenn Morrison retired.
The council subsequently tabled the issue, but it is up for a vote again this week. Given the city’s current financial situation, council members would be wise to shelve the raise, at least for the time being.
Several council members have praised Farris laying out the facts so thoroughly regarding the city’s finances. And indeed, the report does give the council a good idea of where the problem areas lie.
However, it should be noted that if detailed financial reporting had been available to the council over the past several years, members likely could have helped the city avoid the current shortfall.
It all starts with transparency and accountability.
City council members are elected to make fact-based decisions and serve as stewards of the taxpayers’ money. A lack of timely, accurate information regarding the city’s financial health hampers the council’s ability to do its job effectively. And ultimately, it’s the city’s residents who suffer.
Moving forward, the council must demand thorough financial information on a regular basis — not just at budget time.
If unanswered questions remain following the current budget process, the council must call for a forensic audit. Though expensive and time-consuming, it may be the only way to set things right.
Finally, the council must aggressively pursue the search for a new city manager. The process won’t be inexpensive, but the hiring of an experienced city manager with a background in finance will be a sound investment in the city’s future.
It’s true that Killeen’s current budget crisis didn’t happen overnight. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum, either.