The Arizona Republic recently ran a series of articles on discretionary funds, "pools of money, often taken from a city’s general fund, that [are] set aside for an individual council member to use at his or her discretion. It’s a common practice among city councils around the country." These funds are not closely monitored, and they may go for items that individual members might want but the full council might not approve.
The Republic analyzed expenditures from discretionary funds and raised the question, In tough economic times, when cities are cutting basic services, does it still make sense to allow this discretionary spending? Center Senior Fellow in Government Ethics Judy Nadler responded,
We’ve reduced police forces. We’ve reduced the hours at the library. So we cannot afford to waste one dime on expenses that are not legitimate and that do not advance the work elected officials are charged to do on behalf of the public.”
While many people think government budgeting is about accounting, the hardest part of the process, according to John Ellwood, is to build consensus on the basis for making budget decisions. That is, he argued, a political process, where necessarily people will have to make compromises about things they value.
Ellwood is professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC-Berkeley. He spoke at the summer quarterly meeting of the Public Sector Roundtable.
Sam Liccardo, city councilmember from San Jose, Calif., talks with Center Senior Fellow in Government Ethics Judy Nadler about the hard decisions public officials must face when budget cuts are inevitable.