2014-02-21 / Opinion

Trust and Verify

There’s a famous adage that defines insanity as the habit of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome.

For at least the last six years, Newport’s budget process has been plagued by something quite similar.

Every year, the city’s department heads submit their annual budget requests to the city manager’s office to incorporate them into what effectively becomes the city’s most important planning document.

Normally, the process gets under way in April when the budget is printed and released for public consumption.

Community meetings soon follow and depending on the controversy of certain proposals, a debate may ensue.

Last year, Newport’s adopted annual budget totaled $114 million. Of that, $22.5 million was allocated to fund Newport’s public schools – one of the single largest cost centers in the budget.

So when the schools' projected budget wasn’t received on time, City Council members were understandably frustrated. The scene had become unfortunate in its familiarity, and was at the heart of a growing discord between city and school officials.

For their part, those on the school side note that it’s almost impossible to adopt an accurate school budget before state aid levels and enrollment figures are known, resulting in the real possibility of budget deficits that would ultimately have to be met by council action.

For the last several months, city and school officials have been debating whether to combine certain functions of their respective finance offices.

On the city side, Newport’s finance department has been generally recognized as among the most well run outfits in the state. The schools have not been so lucky.

In a state of flux for the last few years, there had until only recently been real questions surrounding the competency of the school’s finance office leading some to call for a complete auditing of the school’s finances and questioning the need for a separate school finance office altogether.

Today, school officials will speak in glowing terms of the improvements made in recent months and some doubt whether combining functions with the city is necessary.

And it might not.

But for the sake of the public trust, it is important to begin to peel back the years of perpetual accounting errors and less-than-transparent practices that annually produced surpluses despite repeated warnings of deficits.

With a new superintendent now in place, this year both sides have the chance to start off on a new footing.

The city owes it to the taxpaying residents and the school children to ensure that its school system functions as efficiently and as transparently as possible. Be it through a new communications channel, audit, or a fundamental reconfiguration of the school’s finance department, we hope that a more productive tone can be struck heading into this budget cycle.

Otherwise, we fear that we might be in for another round of déjà vu. John C. Farley, President Portsmouth Business Association

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