Questions abound at mayor's office budget hearing

Tensions between the administration and City Council flared up again today as Chief of Staff Clay Armbrister defended $4.6 million in proposed spending next year by the mayor's office.

At a Council budget hearing, Councilman Brian O'Neill requested a list of mayor's office employees, by title and salary. Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller wanted a list compiled of contracts the administration planned to eliminate to shave costs. And Councilwoman Marian Tasco sought a better understanding of why the mayor had five communications staffers on the payroll.

But it was Councilman Bill Green, again, who asked among the most pointed questions - and who also at one point wondered aloud whether the position of chief integrity officer, filled by former federal prosecutor Joan Markman, was simply "redundant" when considering the duties of the Board of Ethics. (Mayor Nutter holds that position in great esteem, pointing to it as evidence of his seriousness about strict government ethics.)

Among the litany of questions that were not so easily answered at the hearing was what was the purpose of $520,000 set aside on a page of the budget that did not state specifically explain the need for those dollars.

"Why are you asking us to appropriate money for functions you cannot identify?" Green asked.

"We have not determined that as of yet," Armbrister responded.

Exasperated at what he heard, Green turned to Council President Anna Verna and said, "Madame chair, I do not know what to say."

Armbrister later told a reporter that it was not a matter of the mayor's office trying to cushion its budget. Rather, most of the money - $420,000 - was to fund six positions related to the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, a program of the prior administration that is currently being moved out of the mayor's office into the Commerce Department. "When we reorganized the NTI budget, these were positions that were not immediately cut out," Armbrister said.

He also said the administration has not yet decided whether it will use those dollars to fund other positions, or what those positions might be - the root of Green's frustration.

Nonetheless, Armbrister promised Green later in the hearing - it lasted 2 1/2 hours, twice as long as anticipated - that Council would not be asked to appropriate those funds until and unless the use of those dollars was identified.

Also not easily answered in the hearing was how much less the mayor's office was proposing to spend in 2010 versus 2009.

It was not enough to simply look in thick budget binders for those figures because the mayor's office has since been reorganized. Most notably, the office of the inspector general and the office of arts and culture are no longer officially housed in the mayor's office. They are being transformed into their own departments, so to speak, a result of the administration's effort to "enhance transparency," Armbrister said.

In 2009, before those offices were removed, the mayor's office budget was $7.1 million. But if spending by those offices was excluded, the mayor's office budget that year was $6.1 million, said City Finance Director Rob Dubow.

Given this year's proposed spending of $4.6 million, that would represent a 16 percent cut in dollars spent by the mayor's office.

Asked about the unusual amount of attention given this year to the mayor's office budget, O'Neill said: "There's more scrutiny became of the tough (economic) times... People are digging deeper."

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