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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Spending public dollars, publicly


Spending public dollars, publicly

We think Baker City taxpayers ought to know more about how city officials are spending their money, rather than less.

And so we were disappointed with the City Council's recent decision to allow the city manager to buy more expensive items without getting councilors' approval.

Councilors voted 4-2 on Aug. 14 to raise, from $20,000 to $50,000, the threshold above which the city staff needs the council's approval before buying an item or awarding a contract. The resolution the council approved also gets rid of an exception for vehicle purchases. Before Aug. 14, city officials had to have the council's approval before buying any vehicle, regardless of price. Now, vehicles are treated like all other purchases, and thus subject to the $50,000 limit only.

In his report to councilors for the Aug. 14 meeting, City Attorney David Fine wrote that the staff had two reasons for proposing to boost the threshold to $50,000, and for eliminating the vehicle exception: First, Fine wrote: "Staff feels that $50,000 is a more appropriate threshold at which Council should be involved in making issue-specific determinations, as it represents a value approaching one percent of the current General Fund budget"; and second, "Staff wants Council to be freed of lesser matters, and to have greater time and opportunity to set overall policy and civic goals."

We don't consider spending as much as $50,000 a "lesser matter," and we doubt many of the city's taxpayers think it is, either. Fine's point about $50,000 totaling about one percent of the city's general fund is mathematically accurate but otherwise irrelevant. Councilor Beverly Calder, who along with Councilor Gail Duman voted against the resolution, made a much more valid comparison: $50,000 is about double the average annual income for Baker County residents.

Fine's contention that the City Council needs "greater time and opportunity to set overall policy and civic goals" also fails to persuade us that the resolution is justified.

Since June the council has had one regular meeting per month rather than its traditional two, yet councilors have managed to complete their business without resorting to marathon sessions. In fact councilors have had just one meeting exceed three hours this year — and that one by just two minutes.

City Manager Steve Brocato pointed out during the Aug. 14 meeting that regardless of the spending threshold, he and other city officials can't spend money that the City Council hasn't included in the city's annual budget. That's true, but it's not the point. Councilors approve an entire budget but, with occasional exceptions, they don't approve specific purchases.

We're not worried that city officials, with the new resolution in effect, will start throwing money around. Every city purchase is a matter of public record, and those records are available to anyone who asks for them. But a City Council meeting is a vastly more accessible venue for the public — if you can't attend in person you can watch the meetings on TV, or read the minutes on the city's Web site.

As for the exception for buying vehicles, it should stay along with the $20,000 threshold. Buying cars has in the past been among the council's more controversial decisions, mainly because it can pit local businesses against out-of-town bidders. The bottom line is that public vehicle purchases are best conducted in a public setting such as a council meeting.

We think city residents deserve to know, when the city plans to spend more than twice as much money in a single purchase as many residents earn in an entire year, that the councilors, whom city voters elect to represent them, will at least have a say in the matter before the city manager signs the check.

Sure the old way takes more time. But time, as it relates to Baker City Council meetings, hardly qualifies as a luxury.


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