Eden Prairie’s Budget Advisory Commission faces decommissioning

It appears Eden Prairie’s Budget Advisory Commission is headed for the chopping block.

There are many reasons the city council discussed its future during a recent work-session:

A fall new-member application period brought no interested BAC applicants. Only two members will remain next year after three have decided not to seek re-appointment. Since July all of its monthly meetings have been cancelled. The city council prefers more of a topic-specific financial task force rather than a chartered body that can delve into the city budget as initially intended when created in 2007.

The BAC appears all but officially dead.

To formally decommission the BAC, the city council is awaiting an ordinance it can approve during a city council meeting on Jan. 8, according to the city manager’s office.

The city council briefly discussed the future of the BAC during a Nov. 20 work session, but formal votes during such meetings are not legal –votes must occur during an official or regularly scheduled city council meeting.

During that discussion, three of the four council members in attendance said they were not comfortable with a commission reviewing city budget details and occupying a lot of staff time to comb through department budgets. That primed city staff’s preparation of an ordinance that would end the BAC, if adopted by the city council.

Last year, with a newly elected city council, the BAC’s direction was shifted. Rather than reviewing the city budget in total, the city council would essentially assign certain issues that the BAC could analyze. Then, the BAC would provide the city council possible actions based on its analysis. It was not to provide recommendations, only options.

When the BAC began in 2007, it conducted in-depth reviews of each city department. It’s members – appointed by the city council – had their options open when considering where the city could save money or improve its finances.

Councilmember Brad Aho has said he would like the commission to return to its original budget-reviewing process, as its charter still describes.

“I think it’s an important part of our process,” he said during the work session. “I think it’d be good to get them more involved in active review of the budget again.”

He said the city should spend time finding people who could serve and open up the application process again. If people knew it’d be a full budget review, they may be more willing to apply than applying under the topic-by-topic format.

Those who do not wish to continue the BAC said it is the city council’s main responsibility to review and set the city’s budget, and the process is already transparent.

Councilmember Ron Case said he was not in favor of the BAC at the beginning, but he has grown to accept the most recent format. Ultimately, though, he would like to see a periodic financial task force consisting of community members who could weigh in on specific topics rather than continuing a commission, he said.

“I think its’ a waste of time, a waste of money. … I think it’s time to let it go,” he said.

Although he was not on the city council for the first two years when the commission was active and fully reviewing the budget, Case said he was not sure if the commission’s value was evident after it reviewed the full budget during its early years.

“I can’t think of one recommendation that came out of it that we wouldn’t have done anyway,” Case said during the workshop.

Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens said she had never really been in favor of the commission, either, and the initial BAC prevue allowed them to delve into policy, which is the city council’s role. She would be fine with analysis of specific topics, she said, but not having the BAC determine its own subjects and making recommendations.

“They shouldn’t generate their own projects in my mind,” Tyra-Lukens said.

The BAC did make recommendations initially – such as the high-profile recommendation to merge the Eden Prairie Senior Center into the Eden Prairie Community Center after its own analysis – but it only had an advisory role; the city council could deny recommendations.

Councilmember Sherry Butcher Wickstrom said she thought the BAC served some function for a time, but ultimately it is not a good idea. It did help bring procedural questions to forefront, she said, but felt citizens are confident with the city council’s ability to review the city’s budget.

“I’d like to go back to the old days when we didn’t have a BAC,” Wickstrom said.

Councilmember Kathy Nelson was not present during the workshop, but she has said since the city council reviews the budget earlier in the year than it used to, she thought the city council’s budget review was sound. She has also voiced concerns about the BAC receiving financial information before the city council received it.

BAC Chair Rick King, who decided not to seek a third appointment to the commission starting next year, has said returning the BAC to its original charter would be the best option, but decommissioning the charter completely would be the second-best option.

“It was given unfettered access; I view that as the best choice,” King said after the meeting. “ … I think it’s still – I would actually praise their decision [to decommission it], because now we won’t have to have people working on something that isn’t viewed as useful.”

He said the commission did bring up some options that were not up for consideration before the BAC offered its input.

Despite the city council’s concern about the BAC spending too much time with staff, he hopes the city council will spend a lot of time working with staff reviewing the budget, if it carries through with the direction set forth in the work session.

“The good part is, this is the right ending, if that’s the way they think about [the BAC],” King said. “ … Clearly if you don’t value it, you should let it go.”

up arrow