Jones, who argued passionately against the proposed ordinance, said the referendum change still allows the commissioners an escape, because they would not have to vote on a proposed budget. “They could do nothing.”
Commissioner Brad Osborne offered a similar opinion, saying his concern is the proposed default would give license to the county commissioners “to not do the job we were elected to do.”
He said it would be telling the county executive: “You need to find those cuts that we don’t want to find. I have a problem with that.”
Osborne said understanding a budget and levying taxes are among the most important functions of a county commissioner, “yet this legislation gives us an out.”
Mazziotti said the current system provides that same opportunity for commissioners to do nothing “and for a tax increase to go into effect.”
He said it also allows commissioners to say: “I had nothing to do with that tax increase. That was the county executive’s tax increase.”
Mazziotti acknowledged either budget default mechanism permits commissioners “to get off the hook, which I’m not crazy about. But nobody’s come up with an alternative.”
The proposed ordinance is similar but more simplified version of a initial proposal made by Schware in March.
“I don’t know that what we have before us is the perfect solution,” acknowledged Schware. “I don’t know if there is a perfect solution. But I do think it’s much better than what we have now.”
Brace called for elimination of default procedures and said the commissioners should be required to produce a budget “that is agreed to” by majority vote.
Osborne said he’s not a fan of requiring across-the-board cuts in a budget, because they could impact county departments that have not proposed any increase in expenses.
The proposed ordinance also requires the county to maintain adequate spending reserves, explained Scheller. She said those reserves ensure the county has money available for emergencies.
The county would be required to maintain cash reserves totaling at least one-sixth of annual expenditures in the operating budget.
Disempower the executive?
“There has to be an ability for the county executive to have a voice in fiscal policy,” said Jones. “The budget is policy. This eliminates that.”
Because it would take away the ability of the county executive to veto such a default budget, he said, “then you’re changing more than a budget process. We’re changing the nature of the executive’s role. We’re treating him as an employee, not an elected official.”
“I’m not advocating for the executive,” said Jones. “I’m advocating for the nature of how the charter in our form of government is constructed. If we take the veto away from the executive – under any circumstance -- we’re changing the nature of the role.”
Jones repeatedly said: “I don’t understand what we’re really trying to achieve. What are we really trying to accomplish?”
Jones told Schware: “The reality of what you’re saying is you want to be able to definitively control the outcomes so that they are not what you don’t like.”
Said Scheller: “I don’t believe that we’re trying to control the process or the outcome at all through this bill.
“This becomes a referendum. We’re asking the taxpayers is this what they want?”
If commissioners don’t believe a tax increase is right for the county, said Scheller, taxpayers should not inadvertently be saddled with an increase.
Jones argued that referendum would be asking people to “disempower their elected county executive. We’re now treating him like a municipal administrator – an employee of the board. That’s not a co-equal branch.”
Mazziotti countered: “We’re not co-equal currently. That’s our concern. A tax increase can go into effect without anybody voting for it.”
No budget gets passed without being voted on by the commissioners, argued Jones. “If we can’t collectively come to some kind of consensus, then it’s not the process, it’s the people engaged in the process.”