Arlington County Board's 'Placeholder' Budget Process
When the County Manager proposed the Fiscal Year 2006 county budget in February 2005, he included a number of "policy priority initiatives." One of them involved performing "independent audits where results will be shared with appropriate audiences . . . conducted by third-party independent organizations . . . It is anticipated that four to five program audits could be completed in the first year." The idea was "to improve the service that Arlington County offers its residents." While included in the Manager's proposed budget, the item originated with this year's Board chairman in his New Year's Day 2005 speech under the rubric of 'earned value.' No additional FTE's were provided to staff the initiative.
Fast forward to item 36 on the Board consent agenda (Adobe required) for its December 10 meeting. The Manager recommended the Board "(a)llocate $120,000 from the General Fund General Contingent (001.713) to the Department of Management and Finance (001.031) for a program performance audit of the Site Plan Process." According to the fiscal impact section section of the Manager's report: The FY 2006 budget included $100,000 for program performance audits. The current Medical Care for Inmates audit being conducted by Criminal Justice Institute, Inc. will cost $63,980. Since there will not be sufficient funds to conduct a program performance audit of the Site Plan Process, funds are being requested from the general contingent to do so." Thankfully, Bob Atkins, one of Arlington's fiscal watchdogs, removed item 36 from the consent agenda so that it would be heard at the Board's recessed meeting this evening rather than on Saturday.
During public comment, ACTA's president, Tim Wise, asked Jay Fisette, Board chairman, to explain why so few dollars were included in the FY 2006 budget for these performance audits. Wise essentially wanted to know why so little thought was devoted by the chairman, apparently, to thinking through what he expected from the policy initiative. During the Board's discussion of item 36, the chairman offered that "the $100,000 was a placeholder . . . never believing the $100,000 would do it." That explanation would hold if the chairman had not been an auditor at the U.S. General Accountability Office. The Board discussion then focused on the scope of the planned site plan audit for which the additional money was being requested. Mr. Zimmerman objected to the scope of the planned review, but the item passed 4-1.
While your humble fiscal watchdog has been watching county spending for more than a decade, the opporunity to watch a transaction isolated such as this is a rare opporunity indeed. Nevertheless, it raises questions of how much serious thought goes into developing a local government budget.