This is what Bellevue’s savings account looked like throughout 2015. Okay, it’s not really called “Bellevue’s Savings Account.” This is actually Bellevue’s Capital Improvements Fund. The capital improvements fund is where money is supposed to be parked for long-term, high-cost municipal projects or emergency needs. If we’d like to plan a major project two, three, even five years out, this is where we would park the money as we prepared for the large investment. If there’s a catastrophic event of some kind, this is where we should have excess funds to address the matter. I won’t pretend to know how you handle your personal savings, but my guess is you get the idea of how this is supposed to work.
Because I’ve been assigned to the finance committee and I bring to this council a fresh set of eyes (compared to those who have held office for many years) I was eager to ascertain the borough’s actual financial health. I wanted to know how bad things really were because it seemed obvious to me that we were incapable of affording the costs of major projects. For years now, the borough’s been effectively kicking the can down the road on at least three critical infrastructure projects. Initially, I was thrilled to discover that, according to a 2015 audit of our financial positions, Bellevue had nearly a million dollars in its Capital Improvements Fund. When I asked about these resources and why we weren’t using them for what they had been slated for, I was given a whole host of excuses.
One person said, “Well, that money is assigned to very specific projects. We just can’t touch it.” (huh?)
Another, “Those numbers can be deceiving because they might not actually be true.” (what?)
Then, “This is our ‘rainy day fund’ we shouldn’t touch it unless it’s for something really serious.” (well??)
And then, the ultimate excuse, “We are constantly moving money around from that fund. There’s no telling what’s actually available on any given day.” (SERIOUSLY?!)
I decided it was time to do some actual data mining myself. What the heck are we actually doing with our taxpayer dollars?! The image above is what I’ve been able to drum up thus far. Here’s what the data set tells us: In February of 2015, there was over $600,000 in our “savings account.” Just a month later than figure dropped by nearly $200K to $435,000. Then it took another nose dive in May 2015 to about $280,000. It stayed at that figure until September when it jumped by more than $400,000 to $709,000. In October it dipped by $300,000, but somehow bounced back to $709,000 in November. Then, in December our third party financial auditors discovered there was actually $935,000 in the account, but magically in January 2016 that number dropped again to $300,000 less than that. Today, according to the most recent treasurer’s report that account contains roughly $280,000.
Those are the hard numbers. What those figures tell us in real life is this: We have no idea how to actually save money in Bellevue. No idea, whatsoever. We’re like a spoiled child who sees a shiny new toy and without any consideration for our long-term fiduciary health, we just spend, spend, spend.
That’s when my eyes were opened to what exactly has been happening since I’ve been an elected member of this board. Every so often council considers a proposal to spend some money on something the majority wants. When I, or someone else, asks where we plan to get the money for said expense this is often what we hear, “Oh, we’ll just borrow some from the capital improvements fund.” A few weeks ago this was precisely what was said regarding an initial $10,000 to spend on the 150th Anniversary Bash (party, celebration, festival, parade, whatever you want to call it). Just this past Tuesday, this same conversation occurred with regard to playground equipment. Bellevue was awarded a fantastic grant and with budgeted matching funds that enabled us to spend around $24,000 on new playground equipment at Bayne Park. But, in typical Bellevue fashion, why spend only $24,000 that’s been budgeted and awarded when we can “borrow” another $9,000 from the (you guessed it) capital improvements fund so that we can buy $33,000 worth of playground equipment?!
Those two items combined equal $19,000 “borrowed” from the capital improvements fund in a matter of days. Now it’s starting to make a bit more sense why the graph above fluctuated so much over the course of last year. This isn’t so much a savings account as it is a slush fund!*
*to be fair, the desire of some on council to get the entire $10K for the 150th Celebration was thwarted and they only got to spend $3,500. But had I (and a couple others) not made a fuss about the squandering of taxpayer dollars, the entire $10K would’ve been spent.
Let us put this all into perspective as we draw this article to a close. We’re now entering the third winter with the West Riverview Avenue wall unrepaired. You’ll be told if you ask that we’re helpless in fixing it ourself. It’s far too expensive and we’re simply at the mercy of the state to award us some grant money but we have been denied said money. All we can do is hope they’ll award us the next grant. Wrong! The wall repair was going to cost us just over $350K to fix shortly after it initially fell in April 2014. Today that cost is now around $405,000. There is a serious flooding issue happening around the old Suburban General Hospital. I don’t have the exact figures for that project in front of me, but suffice it to say we’re giving the area residents the same excuse we’ve been giving the people who live on Riverview Ave; we simply don’t have the money to fix it completely right now. Then there’s the West Bellevue Station sewer issue. That’s another beast in and of itself. We have some streets that are like driving on the moon, sidewalks that have been buckling for decades, blighted properties that need to come down, etc etc etc. You get the idea. I’m not suggesting we could’ve done all these things if only we hadn’t committed a few thousand here or there for a party or playground equipment. What I hope you see is a discernible pattern. I hope you see just how irresponsible Bellevue has been with managing your resources. I will continue to draw your attention to these matters as my time on council continues. I will be criticized for sharing this information with you. You’ll likely hear that I’m only telling “half of the story” or something to make myself look good. I was elected to serve you and make you aware of what is going on. What I see, I want you to see. That’s it. Let the chips fall where they may.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Simply by being informed, you make a tremendous difference. Trust me. Don’t forget, 2017 is a big election year for Bellevue. I can guarantee the incumbents haven’t. I’ll just leave it at that.