Budget watch

Jan 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

It will likely be another two months before we know for certain how the 2005-2006 fiscal year went for the city of Detroit. That's when outside auditors will finish reviewing last year's $1.8 billion general fund budget and give a final analysis.

Don't be expecting particularly good news.

Irvin Corley Jr., the City Council's fiscal analyst, predicts a $157 million deficit.

Pamela Scales, the city's budget director, won't give a forecast.

"We're still doing adjustments," she says. "I don't like giving an estimate. Once we finish the work, we'll have the number."

Also unknown is the outlook for the current fiscal year. Corley is promising to have some preliminary numbers in about a month.

Meanwhile, Scales is overseeing preparation of the 2007-2008 budget — which by law is supposed to be balanced. As we've seen repeatedly during mayor Kilpatrick's tenure, however, what's balanced on paper at the start consistently ends up being flooded with red ink once put to the test of reality. That happens lots of places, but over the years we've come to expect budgets from Kilpatrick that seem intentionally designed to deceive, and don't come anywhere close to reflecting accurately how things will play out financially.

Which is why we're not surprised that the city's residents seem more and more disinclined to participate in what always seems to end up being a sham.

As part of the budget development process, the city six years ago began distributing "surveys of citizen city service priorities." The surveys allow residents to offer the bureaucrats direction when it comes to determining the importance of various city services when it comes time to divvy up the funding.

The city hosted two public hearings last fall where the surveys were completed. Surveys also were available on the city's Web site.

Scales gives the survey results to city department heads, who (supposedly) take citizen views into account when submitting their suggested spending plans to Scales' office; she then forwards them to the mayor so that he can submit a proposed budget to City Council in April.

But survey participation this year was scant. In 2002 about 900 people returned completed surveys to the city. This time out just 184 participated. Scales attributed part of the decline to the teachers' strike, since the budget office staff couldn't work with the schools as in the past. That would've brought in several dozen more responses as in years past, she says.

Meaning overall participation still would have been pitiful.

Of the surveys that were analyzed, Scales says the results are not unusual. The Police Department receives highest priority. "Everybody is just concerned about crime," she says. "When citizens have a chance to allocate money, they allocate the most money to police and fire."

A rhetorical question here: If fewer than 200 people in a city of 900,000 participate, and those who do give predictable answers, why bother?

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]