Saturday, February 14, 2015

Meeting Punta Gorda's Finance Department

My fear
I came prepared for the Citizens' Academy Finance Department session with not one, but two, bottles of Diet Coke in my bag.  What can I say?  I had visions of a sleep-inducing discussion of budgetary line items given by folks with slide rulers tucked into their pockets.  Instead, I found myself fully engaged as Dave Drury and his team talked about the scope of the work they do to keep Punta Gorda in the black.

The reality --Sharon Knippenberg, Dave Drury and Kristin Simeon

Dave started off with a discussion of the City's investment policy that brought me back to my days as a lawyer. They take a SLY approach to investing (with SLY standing for safety, liquidity and yield, in that order).  The State sets basic parameters for permissible investments which the City then tweaks.  In general, the "prudent man" standard is used (i.e., the level of care that men of "prudence, discretion and intelligence" exercise with respect to their own affairs).  Orange County, California's bankruptcy continues to serve as a cautionary tale for governmental investment authorities everywhere, and you will be happy to learn that Punta Gorda's own investment policy is very plain vanilla.

We learned how the City matches debt issuances with revenue streams (hence the importance of the 1% sales tax) and that the City never issues debt for non-capital items.  I didn't realize that Punta Gorda has a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) whose focus is projects that rebuild public spaces.  The Herald Court parking garage is the largest of these projects (and accounts for most of the outstanding $18MM in CRA debt).

We talked about fund accounting, which means that each City activity is accounted for like a discrete business. Services such as fire, police code enforcement and city administration are funded through the General Fund whose monies come from taxes, intergovernmental revenues, etc.

There are several other types of funds, but it was the Special Revenue Funds that caught my attention.  These Funds are run with monies received from special taxes or other earmarked revenues sources and include the Canal Management Fund, Community Redevelopment Block Grant, and the 1% Local Sales Tax Fund. The newest Special Revenue Fund relates to the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program for which the City of Punta Gorda is the "host entity."  The National Estuary Program develops conservation and management plans for estuaries of national significance, including Charlotte Harbor.  CHNEP's oyster reef restoration project launched last year with the assistance of many volunteers in our community.  (I had the pleasure of reporting on the project for Florida Weekly and putting together a few oyster mats myself.  To read more about the project, click here.)

Our morning sped by, with Controller Sharon Knippenberg keeping a close track of time.  You can tell that she runs a tight ship!  Other areas covered included budgeting and procurement.  As always, emphasis was put on the volume of information available through the City's website (which you can get to by clicking here).  And, as always, we were encouraged to spread the word that citizen participation in the financial planning process is encouraged.

I came away once again impressed with the caliber of the people working for our city and their enthusiasm for and commitment to their work.  With each session, I feel more appreciative of what a special place Punta Gorda is to live (and I was pretty darn appreciative to begin with).  Our next session will introduce us to the world of utilities, complete with a tour of the water treatment plant.  Stay tuned for my report.  

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