POCATELLO — A local grassroots organization that focuses on improving government accountability and encouraging civic engagement uncovered this week a clerical issue in Pocatello’s proposed budget for 2021 that could have resulted in a $4 million shortfall.
Additionally, the group, Pocatello for Accountable Government Entities, or PAGE, and its leader, Pocatello resident Heather Disselkoen, have taken issue with Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad’s decision to indefinitely prohibit verbal open discussion items from being presented at City Council meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mistakes happen,” PAGE wrote on its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon. “We are all human. Yet, it should not be overlooked that if PAGE had not pointed out this discrepancy and the originally published budget had gone to hearing and approved by the council, the city of Pocatello could have been facing a $4 million deficit next year. The error was barely caught in time to fix the published announcement and still meet their budget hearing deadlines. A $4 million deficit could have been devastating to the City of Pocatello.”
On Monday, Disselkoen noticed the city’s proposed budget published on July 22 estimated the city’s needed revenue from property taxes for fiscal year 2021 was roughly $3.6 million less than the city’s needed property tax revenue for the 2020 budget. This struck Disselkoen as odd considering the proposed cuts to next year’s budget reached nowhere near $3.6 million and the city had lowered other anticipated tax revenues in a proactive measure to adjust for any downturn from COVID-19, she said.
Disselkoen pointed out the discrepancy to Councilman Roger Bray, who contacted the city’s financial department and then Blad via email.
“This would have been a huge hit for the city,” Bray said. “We had only budgeted that we would be down about $1 million for next year.”
Logan McDougall, a city spokesperson, told the Idaho State Journal on Thursday this clerical issue with the budget arose after the city’s administrative support interfund was erroneously included twice. Because the interfund revenue was listed twice, it adversely affected the amount of tax revenue to be collected by the city, he added.
Pocatello on Wednesday published a revised budget that showed the city’s needed property tax revenue for 2021 was $31.7 million, which represents roughly a $500,000 increase over the needed property tax revenue for 2020 and $4 million short of what the city originally published on July 22.
Councilwoman Christine Stevens says when she first observed the first published budget it was also clear to her it was erroneous. How such a significant discrepancy made it into the published budget causes her concern, she said.
“As soon as they alerted us that the budget didn’t look right it was completely obvious because we did not leave our meetings with anywhere near that amount,” Stevens said. “How such an obvious error got overlooked and published I have no idea. Certainly my confidence vis-à-vis the finances in the budget is somewhat shaken. We need to be able to rely on the accuracy of the numbers we are given to do our jobs effectively. Thankfully we had a local watchdog group that uncovered this error.”
Disselkoen and PAGE, which she founded in April, have also emailed the entire City Council and Blad about reinstating the nixed open discussion items during council meetings, or at the very least adding the issue to its agenda so that the City Council can decide among its body whether or not to reinstate it.
Blad told the Journal this week that the decision to remove the open discussion item from meetings was one he and staff in his office made in March at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Idaho after seeking advice from the city legal department.
“When we went to online meetings because of COVID-19 we just pulled that three-minute open discussion item off the agenda until everything got back to normal,” Blad said.
Blad contends that only a couple of residents take advantage of the open discussion item, and they usually rant about topics unrelated to current city actions, such as religion, radioactive waste, constitutional violations and unsubstantiated allegations that local public officials and U.S. presidents are guilty of treason.
In lieu of voicing concerns verbally during council meetings, Blad has asked that all open discussion items be sent to the city via email.
As a group that wants to encourage more local residents to get involved with their government counterparts, PAGE believes being unable to provide open feedback to the council and mayor verbally is a huge disservice to transparency and accountability.
“I think this is important to be part of their meetings because PAGE is trying to get people involved, showing up to meetings and participating in the discourse,” Disselkoen said. “It’s hard enough to get people at the meetings but if they are not offered a chance to speak why should they show up?”
Blad said the city’s open discussion item during council meetings is not something Pocatello is required to offer by law, adding that whenever a city adds or removes this item from its agendas there “is an uproar” either way. Blad said he has no immediate plans to reinstate the discussion item, adding that it will be back eventually.
According to City Council President Heidi Adamson, the council currently has no plans to discuss PAGE’s concerns about the removal of discussion items from meetings.
“We rarely have anyone ... show up for discussion items at the City Council meetings,” Adamson said. “Of course, we still welcome input from citizens and are glad to hear from people when they have a question about city operations. I think most people have found that picking up the phone and calling, sending an email, or catching us on the street or in the store works pretty well.”
Adamson continued, “There are a lot of public outreach opportunities the council would like to be having — town hall meetings for example — that have been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. Our community has been very understanding of this and we appreciate their patience and support. So, yes, I think the council supports Mayor Blad’s decision considering the circumstances at this time.”