2023 Bloomington budget notebook: Built-in padding of 50 percent or more?

Why is the city of Bloomington allowing $1,400,000 for a single item in the 2023 budget that has for the last three full calendar years averaged about $990,000 in actual cost?

That’s basically what city councilmember Matt Flaherty wanted to know last Wednesday night.

Table: Prior actuals versus 2023 budget for general fund support of sanitation

Department Fund Account
Description 19 Actual 20 Actual 21 Actual 22 OK’d  23 Propsd
 16-Sanitation General  539010 Fund Transfer $985,625 $1,009,620 $978,492 $1,519,146 $1,419,146

Flaherty was focused on a particular item in the budget that he eventually wants to eliminate completely—a transfer from the general fund to the sanitation fund. The transfer supports curbside waste collection service.

But that focus revealed a pattern.

At Wednesday’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, Flaherty reported he’d reviewed the numbers for that fund transfer over the last four years—budgeted versus actual. And he’d discovered that on average for a four-year period the city had over-budgeted that general fund transfer to sanitation by about $550,000 every year, or by more than 50 percent.

Flaherty wanted to know why the city was “padding” the general fund support for the sanitation fund by that much.

Bloomington city controller Jeff Underwood responded to Flaherty’s concern by saying that the money does wind up getting returned to the general fund. That is, it does not accumulate in the sanitation fund. Underwood put it like this: “There’s extra money. It does end up going back into the general fund balance, and it’s a part of those overall reserves.”

Some of the ensuing back-and-forth between Flaherty and Underwood touched on the idea that the over-budgeting for that general fund transfer might be “unique.” Flaherty did not sound persuaded that there is something unique about the general fund transfer to sanitation that justifies the over-budgeting of the transfer by 50 percent.

How common is over-budgeting for other, garden variety expenses?

To start to get a handle on that question, The B Square parsed all the individual lines in the departmental budgets into a Google Sheet. That allows for a comparison between a three-year average of actual amounts to the budgeted amounts for 2023.

For advertising, dues and subscriptions, instruction, postage, printing, and travel, the total of actual expenses in the three years 2019, 2020, and 2021 averaged $745,379.

In the 2023 budget, those kinds of expenses are proposed to total $1,789,132, which is about 2.4 times the three-year average of actual expenses.

But for some kinds of expenses, the expenditures were likely depressed in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, the $103,492 spent on travel in 2019 was followed by years when just $26,266 and $45,076 was spent on travel. That means the $234,966 budgeted for travel in 2023 is about quadruple the three-year average of actual expenses.

If the pre-pandemic year of 2019 is used by itself as the standard of comparison, the amount budgeted for 2023 travel is still double the amount of actual travel expenses in 2019.

Table: Prior actuals versus 2023 budget for selected expenditure types

 Description SUM 19 Actual SUM 20 Actual SUM 21 Actual SUM 22 OK’d SUM 23 Propsd
Advertising $86,225 $62,250 $61,611 $118,400 $125,350
Dues and Subscriptions $168,882 $236,140 $332,996 $487,962 $693,527
Instruction $192,966 $124,646 $138,059 $330,598 $376,208
Postage $71,729 $68,510 $87,301 $126,180 $123,330
Printing $160,718 $125,241 $144,028 $224,776 $235,751
Travel $103,492 $26,266 $45,076 $176,041 $234,966
Grand Total $784,012 $643,053 $809,071 $1,463,957 $1,789,132

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