Budget flap exposes problems in City Hall

Budget flap exposes problems in City Hall

It would be easy to dismiss the ongoing city council dustup over set-asides for the affordable housing and open space funds as much ado about nothing. Unfortunately, the disagreement reveals quite a bit about City Hall and our top elected officials.

On its face, the change is simply an accounting maneuver. In the past, officials shunted a percentage of the real estate tax into the funds before drawing up the budget. Now they’re going to appropriate the funds rather than automatically set aside a portion of the tax haul each year.

The switch only came to light after city council unanimously approved the fiscal 2014 budget. Soon afterward, Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor John Chapman claimed to have not known about it when they cast votes in support of the financial plan. Both want the set-asides restored.

It’s important to note that while the method of funneling dollars toward the funds has changed, both will receive money this year. About $1.1 million will go toward open space while around $2.2 million will head to affordable housing — more than what the latter fund would have received were the set-asides still in place.

So why is this an issue that residents and taxpayers should be concerned about? For one, two city councilors apparently voted on the budget without understanding what, exactly, was in the document. Yes, both are new to council chambers, and the whirlwind of negotiations can be a bit hectic. But a claim of ignorance is less than reassuring from the public’s perspective.

Still, the duo managed to raise an important issue, namely that the change was made without adequate public discussion. Open space and affordable housing — judging from what we hear in the community and read in our opinion pages — are near and dear to the hearts of many residents. Changing the way dollars are allocated toward either fund should have garnered as much dialogue as the Warwick Pool or King Street lights.

More worrisome from our perspective, though, is that appropriating — rather than setting aside the dollars from the get-go — allows future officials to cut funding without much notice. After all, if city councilors don’t always know what’s in the budget, how can the average resident understand changes in the document?

If nothing else, this noncontroversial controversy should remind voters and taxpayers to pay attention to the details. It should also remind our elected leaders the importance of understanding a matter before voting on it.