Council hearing notebook: Some things we learned about the capital budget

Well, we sat in the capital budget hearing all day yesterday. We wouldn't say it was fun, per se, but we learned some interesting things about the city's attempts (and sometimes failure) to repair its crumbling infrastructure. Here are a few of them:

  • The capital budget is really complicated. When a councilperson asked where the money for a specific project was coming from, it took a lot of time, and some musical chairs amongst department heads, to find the answer. This is because capital funding comes from the federal government, the state and the city, and some of it is carried over from previous years.
  • City Council is frustrated at the pace of capital spending. Councilman Frank Rizzo talked about a bridge that was still being repaired with money allocated in fiscal year 1998, and Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller spent quite a while talking about a fire station in her district that’s been waiting for a new floor for the past decade. Several councilmembers want the city to hire a project manager to speed up construction projects. The administration, for its part, says that it’s working to reform the budgeting process with the same goal in mind.
  • Councilman Bill Green really likes technology. He complained that the city isn’t spending money on IT improvements that would allow program-based budgeting -- basically, a system that would allow city officials to track how much money is being spent on specific projects, instead of just in aggregate by department. Right now, Green said, it's difficult to even find out how many positions are open in a given department at any one time. The administration's response: The city has to prioritize its technology spending, and there are other systems on the verge of collapse that need to be replaced first.
  • Everyone likes Don Schwartz. Maybe it’s because of his incredibly soothing voice — which never rises much above a whisper — but whenever the health commissioner stepped to the microphone, the Council chamber got a little less tense, and previously frustrated councilmembers discovered their indoor voices as he explained things like the city's plan to digitize health records. Maybe the administration should send Schwartz to every budget hearing?

Update: My God, Don Schwartz got booed!

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