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A Battle Over Measure D

Half-cent sales tax spurs debate over town finances.

Trying to understand a town’s budget seems like it should be a difficult, but straight-forward process, with revenues and expenditures lining up on either side. 

Not so with Fairfax’s budget, says a group that has formed to fight – Measure D – on the Nov. 8 ballot. The No on D committee has created a website, with charts based on town audit numbers, to demonstrate what they argue is consistent misrepresentation and a lack of clarity with the town’s money.

“They consistently underestimate revenues and expenses,” said Jory Prum, one of the members of No on D. Prum said that according to the yearly audits the town both took in far more money than anticipated and spent far more money over the last five years. “That tells me the budgeting process is not accurate.”

Prum, Bill Parker, John Molloy, and former council member Susan Brandborg have created a series of foot-noted charts based largely on the yearly audits that show an increase in expenses, an increase in revenue, and a discrepancy between budgeted and actual amounts.

Based on that, they argue, residents should vote no on the local sales tax.

“Vote no on Measure D to send a message to town hall: fix the mess,” said Prum.

But, said Town Treasurer Barbara Petty, basing all that off the audits misses a number of key points and differences from the annual budgeting process.

“The audits present the numbers in an entirely different way,” she said.

One of the main claims that the No on D Committee is making is that the town has taken in $2.7 million more than expected from 2005 to 2010. But, according to them, the town has also spent even more than that over what the budgeted expenditures were in that time.

Most of this information is based on the yearly audits. The audit for 2009-10 clearly states, for example: “General Fund revenue during the FY 2009-10 year totaled $6,126,075, which was more than the final budgeted amount by $479,071, or 8.5%.”

Great, thinks any Fairfax resident, the revenue was higher than expected.

But, the next paragraph in the audit reads: “General Fund expenditures for FY 2009-10 totaled $6,758,910, and were lower than the final budgeted amount by $151,962, or 2.2%.”

That means, according to the audit, said Prum, that even though revenue was higher than expected and expenses were lower than expected, the town still overspent. It would appear that expenses in 2009-10 were more than $600,000 than revenue.

But, a look at the town budgets muddles up those numbers.

General Fund numbers don’t take into account special funds, such as the Measure I (formerly Measure F) money, state COPS money, or Measure K capital improvement money, for example, said Petty. All those funds are held separately – and some are noted as transfers into the General Fund, which would appear as revenue. Measure I money, around $450,000 each year, is largely transferred into the town’s General Fund. All of which is clearly delineated in the budget and referenced in the audit.

Simply trying to find the numbers the audit references for 2009-10, though, in the budgets is difficult.

In the approved budget for 2009-10, the anticipated expenses and revenue were $6,939,900 – with a $306,591 transfer from the dry period fund to cover the deficit that year. That number matches the budgeted expense number referenced in the audit for that year, which the town came under, but not the budgeted revenue amount – implying the audit doesn’t take into account certain fund revenue transfers that are budgeted for

“Public budgets are complex documents and they can be opaque,” said Mayor Larry Bragman

It is that opaqueness that concerns the No on D Committee. How can the residents know what tough cuts need to be made, said Prum. “I don’t know what they’re spending it on. The info isn’t transparent enough.”

For example, he points to the commonly referenced argument that 80 percent of the town budget goes to payroll. But only about 60 percent of the actual town budget goes to payroll and salaries, he said.

The 80 percent number, Bragman said, is figured by factoring in the payroll cost of the and other contractors the town uses to provide services. The town doesn’t not their payroll, because it is simply paid out as a contract fee.

Prum argues that that doesn’t make sense to reference a statistic in the budget that can not be reached with information in the budget. Instead, one has to download the fire department’s budgets and calculate their portion of money that goes to payroll – likewise for other contractors.

“There’s no real transparency,” he said.

But, said Bragman, the reality is the town has been cutting expenses and coming to grips with a challenging economic situation.

“It’s not like we have some secret stash of money,” he said.

The town has had higher revenues than expected because they budget conservatively, said Bragman. And, there have been higher expenses than expected because pension, healthcare and medical costs have gone up.

In addition, said Petty, over the five years examined, the town spent just over $900,000 on repairs after the flood – some of which it is still waiting to be reimbursed for from FEMA. The FEMA money is supposed to go into one of those separate funds from the General Fund and accounted for differently, but, said Petty, because the staff had never done FEMA reimbursements before some of it was mistakenly put into the General Fund after the flood.

The town, which has gone through a series of financial directors in the last six years, did have accounting problems a few years ago and had gotten behind on its auditing process. But, with the most recent audit, which gave the town a clean bill of accounting health, they are nearly back on track.

If residents don’t pass Measure D, the half-cent sales tax, they may soon find themselves in a “race to the bottom,” said Bragman.

State funds, sales tax and property taxes have gone down, while costs such as pensions are going up. “You can’t argue about the reality,” he said.

Actually, you can.

The No on D committee disputes all those claims and says that it’s just been one stop-gap tax after another. It’s time for Fairfax to get it’s finances in order.

“They see an opportunity for easy money,” Prum said.

Are you going to vote yes on Measure D? Are you worried about the town finances?

valeri hood October 26, 2011 at 11:24 PM
In response to Jory's latest 'blow' -why not ask his good friend and supporter and fellow complainer, former council member, Susan Brandborg who was serving during that time--?? Did she ok that budget? 'But if you'd *really* like to ask a question no one in Town Hall will answer, ask them why Janette L. Burke -- the former finance director's unemployed pal -- was paid $104,861.63 from June 2009 through January 2011. The check registers for all of her checks are extremely nebulous, mostly saying "professional services" or specifying only a date, while all other entries in the Town's check registers are very specific, such as "Willow traffic signal" or "Print Ads 2009 Festival".
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 12:47 AM
Actually, I do believe that local government has played a major role in Fairfax being considered the best town in Marin, and that is a matter of policy which generally favours people over corporate interests. The first clear statement of "your" side that I have heard so far has been your recent response to David, and I appreciate it. It is a pretty different tone from most of what came before. As for your other recent statements pertaining to the former finance director. First I've heard of it, and if true, it needs to be followed up upon. I just believe that the whole conversation could have been handled differently, and that there are ways to bring up and deal with negative things in a positive way. Mostly it just seems muddy, and clarity of the real issues is a good thing.
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 12:55 AM
Ps, and ultimately, this is all chickenchumpchange. Where we really need to focus our outrage is at the top. Wars and waste have near ruined us. While the schools have to sell frigging magazines and cookies, etc, billions of OUR money is wasted on killing and laying waste. What we really value as a people and a culture is war and consuming. Shame on all of us, really, we go along with it all, when we ARE the power and the engine. Not to minimize measure D, pro or con, and Nature is gonna kick our consuming butts, unless we start sharing and taking care of each other, and education is likely the key to all of it. How DO we educate each other, or even have a conversation, when we can not communicate or understand each other from the get go?
valeri hood October 27, 2011 at 01:27 AM
That about sums it up Sierra- but isn't it amazing the magical thinking that is going on with the NO on D folks? As if Fairfax is immune to the budget deficits that are going on all around us- every town is in trouble financially - every town is trying to figure out how to cope with the federal and state budget deficits- we are asking for such a small amount of $$- we have all been hit hard- frozen wages, fewer benefits, less hiring, higher costs- food, housing, health, but we need a healthy town to continue the fight for democracy- it's only on the local level that we can actually hold our officials accountable- as those of us know, who attend council meetings where these issues are hashed out. Thanks to Pam for clearing up the reasons for paying the fees out to Jan Burke. valeri
Jory Prum October 27, 2011 at 02:17 AM
So, Pam. I'd be very interested to know a number of things about our contractor. 1) What was her scope of service? 2) Who hired her? 3) Will you provide me with a copy of that contract and scope of service? 4) Is there a reason why she was a contractor instead of a full-time employee, since she apparently was working at Town Hall pretty close to full time for 18 months? 5) Do her invoices describe the actual work she was doing?
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 03:56 AM
This is kinda long, and it is worth a read. It covers some California economic recent history, and how we got where we is, and it still needs to be taken with some salt and pepper. http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2011/11/michael-lewis-201111#gotopage4
Marcia Hagen October 27, 2011 at 04:11 AM
I want to thank Patch for the opportunity to read the differing viewpoints on this issue. I only wish more voices were part of the discussion. The same points were raised over and over by the same people.
R Darcy October 27, 2011 at 02:51 PM
my support and appreciation for the Fairfax town council has increased a great deal now that I've seen what you have to put up with. Thanks very much.
Pam Hartwell October 27, 2011 at 03:06 PM
Jory, Those are really good questions to ask our Town Manager. As you may or may not know, in our form of local government, the council only hires the Manager and the Manager is in charge of the day to hirings of other contractors and employees.
Geologist October 27, 2011 at 04:21 PM
This citizen requests you adjust the level of services to ensure 1) the town doesn't spend more in revenues than you currently take in, and 2) the town doesn't continue to hit citizens with more taxes. Its pretty simple. Reform your pension and pay plan like Jerry Brown is proposing, or reduce staff or reduce services. Spend within your means. That's why and several of my neighbors are voting NO on D.
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 05:30 PM
I for one never want to live, be a part of, or support any form of "Potterville's" being created here, or anywhere. Let them eat cake, we've got ours and screw everybody else, sink or swim, but leave me out of it, etc. Shame on all of us, really. Look around, get off our asses, and get involved in creating a world that works for all of us. For the most part we are a bunch of selfish and self serving creatures out for our own empires, and to hell with everyone else, just give us our inexpensive, designed to break, and made by slaves products, all of which is a result of governmental policy (insane ones at that.) It is not all about money, or security, as we continue to reduce this world to ownership, all fenced and parceled off. The land of the free? What a joke. Free to what, make money and consume? We need local government to regulate human behavior, and overall, what we have in Fairfax is a gem. Yes it needs some help, and support, and change too, and what have you given back to your community or the earth lately? moo along folks, time for a drive to Costco? I'll take a walk to the good earth. We are all loony blowhards, fixated, and blah, blah, blah. Can we be kind or take care of each other? Vote you conscience, education, beliefs, and ignorance, and at the end of it all, be involved in making a better world for all, and not just humans.
Larry Bragman October 27, 2011 at 07:55 PM
Jory's statement that all of NOD's numbers are accurate is incorrect. NOD's website graph overstates Fairfax's property tax revenues by over a million dollars for 2009 by adding in pension override funds. NOD's claim that the Town is not spending approximately 80% of its revenue on personnel costs also lacks merit. I have published a detailed rebuttal to NOD's analysis at: www.bragmanforfairfax.com
Jory Prum October 27, 2011 at 08:01 PM
Nice try, Larry, but I already have corrected the one number you found. It was reported on page 13 as being $4,602,352 and on page 18 as $3,423,132. Why those numbers suddenly differ in the FY09 audit is not explained in the audit, but the number you found doesn't change our analysis much. If anything, it shows that property tax revenues actually rose a little from FY2009 to FY2010!
Larry Bragman October 27, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Jory: NOD mistakenly combined pension override special funds with general funds on your website and your mailer and exaggerated Fairfax's general revenue by over a million dollars. While I appreciate the correction, it typifies the lack of rigor of NOD's analysis.The audit doesn't need to explain facts, you need have the discernment to understand what you're reading before you publish incorrect and misleading conclusions. Will you now also be correcting your admitted baseless assertion about personnel costs as we discussed yesterday? I'll be waiting. Thanks, Larry
Jory Prum October 27, 2011 at 08:16 PM
Not to worry, Larry. We'll be rebutting your distortions shortly. And with citations that prove quite handily that our numbers are accurate.
Mimi Newton October 27, 2011 at 08:20 PM
I'm voting for Measure D and part of the reason is I want to help ensure that the Town can afford to hire capable people to help manage our budget and perform accurate accounting for our annual budget. As Chair of the Fairfax Open Space Committee, I'm familiar with a lot of the problems that the Town has had getting its budgetary and financial house in order and have seen a lot of progress in that direction over the past few years. I think that progress needs to continue and doubt that we will be able to really manage our money properly if we can't afford to pay the right people to help us. Definitely voting YES on Measure D!
Larry Bragman October 27, 2011 at 08:29 PM
Jory: Citations are meaningless and misleading if they are taken out of context or simply misused as NOD has done. While NOD's website and mailer states otherwise, you admitted to me yesterday that by your own calculations, Fairfax spends "81 1/2%" of its revenue of personnel costs, remember? I'm glad you've begun to make corrections on NOD's website. Will you now send a corrected mailer too? Larry
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 08:33 PM
I resent the whole tone Jory. "We'll be rebutting your distortions shortly." This is not trying to reach any kind of resolution or solution, nor is ittrying to build any sort of community, and it IS divisive. WTF, distortions? just the word implies trying to hide something, or nefarious intent. I am interested in community and communication, and working things out TOGETHER, as we are all in this madhouse together, and from what i have seen here, you do not wont to communicate, or work together. Distortions? Start by cleaning off your own mirror, and the distortions which you are "inflicting" on all of us, ignorantly, or on purpose. Don't be so arrogant.
Jory Prum October 27, 2011 at 08:53 PM
Keep trying to lawyer me, Larry. See if it works. You found one number that didn't work and you'd like to invalidate our whole website from that. The fact is our findings have not changed as a result of that number you cited. Citations are not meaningless; they allow the reader to go check our information for themselves and see without question that what we present is fair, accurate, and not taken out of context. Oh, and don't forget to mention all of this in that hit piece you're about to mail out!
Jory Prum October 27, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Sierra, you are welcome to resent whatever you like. I resent being bullied by someone who distorts facts to their own purpose and tries to then make me look not credible using them. I'm done being bullied by Mayor Bragman and I will be providing proof of his distortions. If you are willing to read with an open mind, you will no doubt agree that he is twisting numbers and statements to suit his purposes.
Larry Bragman October 27, 2011 at 09:01 PM
Actually Jory, its not one number, its about five items that form the core claims of NOD's campaign. As to a so-called hit piece, again you're making statements that are unfounded and designed to be negative. I hope folks will please take the time to read my reply to NOD: http://www.bragmanforfairfax.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=72&Itemid=79
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 09:05 PM
And what purposes ARE those Jory? To enrich himself, as are all the council members? To spend countless hours in a mostly thankless job as a public servant, listening to the public on all sides, and reading countless reports, while at the same time doing his best to choose wisely for the town's future needs? "No on D" sounds more and more like a negative campaign. Occupy Fairfax. The enemy is ourselves, our ignorance, and our inability to work together for any sane future. Truly, wherever ONE or more are gathered, there is conflict.
Terry Goyan October 27, 2011 at 10:08 PM
I believe that the last hit piece was by you Jory in the Egger campaign for council. If I'm correct you put out a piece the day before the election so that a response was impossible. This is an indication of how you play politics and it's not pretty! You don't let the facts get in the way of your NOD attacks. The process is transparent as the council goes through the budget in public forums that you and anyone else are welcome to attend. By not going to these meetings you prove that you care less about the facts then blindly assailing the results of public audits. These audits show that the Town of Fairfax has done a superb job of getting through an extremely difficult financial period. Many towns and cities are currently in far worse financial condition then Fairfax. I applaud the efforts of the council and town in making every effort to operate on a lean budget. Our town employees must also believe the results of the audits as many are forgoing any pay increases as well as reductions in retirement benefits. I find it hard to accept that you know so much more about finances that the Town and State auditors. Perhaps you missed your calling!
Jory Prum October 27, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Oh, yes. Saint Egger, "The Stuff of Legend." The man who sent his minions knocking on doors Halloween eve to warn everyone of the scary developers waiting at the Town's property lines if Frank wasn't re-elected. Yes, I wrote a letter. I signed it, too. And the Coastal Post ran it on the front page of the newspaper the day AFTER the election. It had a very catchy headline: "Frank Egger can provide some substance or shut up". And I still stand behind that letter's contents. You can enjoy it here: http://www.coastalpost.com/05/12/31A.html
Dan Ross October 27, 2011 at 10:42 PM
Thanks, Marcia. Being a platform for civil online community discussions and debates is a core function of this site. We are very happy to see people finding this a viable way to showcase their views.
Dan Ross October 27, 2011 at 10:46 PM
Thanks, everyone, for your participation in this online community discussion/debate. Please debate the issue and the messages rather than the messengers so the debate can remain a civil, beneficial one for the entire community.
Sierra Salin October 27, 2011 at 11:32 PM
I needed a good laugh. I just about spit milk out my nose reading your comment Dan, and thank you.
Marc Delurgio October 28, 2011 at 02:00 AM
I'm not a fan of taxes, but with a small retail base, lowering home values, and concerted efforts of the budget committee to get things balanced, I think that Measure D is the best option. Employee benefit costs are only going up. I think that No on D's premise is false - even if they have questions about how things are allocated (exacerbated by high turnover of city finance staff), there is no appearance of impropriety and Fairfax will continue to be under deficits if we don't raise more revenue. The council members have done a great job in addressing many of No on D's allegations - although this has unfortunately turned into one of those ugly internet threads. It would probably be better for just one council member to get into it online - too much of a time sink and more back and forth just fuels the fire. My wife owns a thriving local shop whose customers are ~80% from greater Marin and SF who come to shop at the store and often stick around for coffee, lunch or more shopping. Based on how many visitors Fairfax has, a sales tax is a better approach than a property tax. And, btw, thank you to the police officers and public works folks, who are incredibly responsive to local business owners. :-)
Jory Prum November 06, 2011 at 01:15 AM
Town officials continue to say there is no financial mess. If that's true, how come we have discovered a discrepancy of nearly $300,000 in the Town's financial reports from FY2009-2011? Read all about it here: http://fairfaxsaysno.com/errors.php Please join us in sending a message to Town Hall: Fix the financial mess BEFORE asking for more money! Vote NO on Measure D.
Sierra Salin November 06, 2011 at 01:31 AM
All in all, we shall see the results at the voting booth. I love this town, and the folks who live here. I also believe that we have a great and responsive Council, which is willing and able to respond to our towns needs with openness, honesty, good will, and sound policy. If we have an issue, come on down to the Council meetings on the Wed's evenings on which it meets. Overall, after having our sales taxes reduced by 1cent, adding a half cent back on to support our town, is STILL a half cent less than we have been paying already. I am voting yes on measure D, as well as continuing to be interested AND involved in our Town, and community. For those wanting to have some constructive input in our town, get involved. Come to Council meetings, or run for Town Council, and remember, we are ALL on this ever shrinking and overly consumed lil planet, TOGETHER.... We have a great town and we have a great community. Lets keep on making it better. Neither side of anything speaks for everybody, or the whole town, yes, no, or maybe so, we still live here and see each other around town. Some of us dot our I's and cross our T's, Some of us cross our eyes and drink our t's, and some of us do both and neither, and, can we just work together somehow, before all of nature comes crashing down on all of our righteous ignorances? Occupy your hearts, minds, and community folks. Sierra Salin

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