Saturday, February 16, 2013

Caldwell Administration Withholds Budget and Utility Records

Appeal hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon

by Dan Schroeder

In a move reminiscent of the previous administration, Ogden city officials are refusing to grant access to two collections of city records: the city’s line-item budget, and the city’s data on water use by utility customers.

In both cases, the city’s principal rationale for denying access is that the records are stored in electronic databases.

I requested these records as part of my ongoing effort to understand the city’s budget in general, and utility operations in particular. Readers may recall that a year ago I immersed myself in the utility rate revision process. Among other things, I discovered that the city has been using the utility operations as cash cows, funneling several million dollars each year from the utility funds into the general fund. I also projected that the utility rate increases approved last May would bring in somewhat more revenue than needed to cover infrastructure upgrades and operating expenses.

But it was hard to be precise about these projections, because I had only incomplete data on current revenue and expenses. For example, it appeared that additional money was being funneled into the general fund for “services” that were never itemized. I also wanted to understand a mysterious payment of $111,300 made to Pineview Water in February 2012. Most importantly, I needed better data on the number and classification of city utility customers, and on how much water they typically use.

Over much of the last year I tried to get answers to these questions through informal channels. After repeated nagging, I did get some partial answers from Chief Administrative Office Mark Johnson, and later from Mayor Mike Caldwell. Eventually, however, both Johnson and Caldwell refused to answer any further questions. And so, reluctantly, I resorted to filing formal requests under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).

In December I filed a request for all records documenting or justifying the payments for “services” mentioned above. In response, the city indicated that there were no records to document how the amounts of these payments (which now total about $1.8 million per year) were determined. However, the city did provide me with five pages excerpted from a lengthy line-item budget document, showing a line for each category of such payments.

Up until then, I had naively assumed that the “budget” consists of the document that the city council approves every June, which is posted for all to see on the city’s web site. But that document doesn’t have anywhere near as much detail as the five pages that I received in December. Delighted to learn that such a detailed line-item budget document exists, I filed a formal request for the whole document in early January. And much to my surprise, even though they had already given me five pages of the document, the city refused to give me the rest of it. Apparently the complete Ogden City line-item budget is a secret.

Meanwhile, because the 2012 calendar year had just ended, I filed a separate request for utility customer and water use data (with names and addresses removed) for the year 2012. I already had similar data files for 2010 and 2011, which had been compiled and provided to the consultants during last year’s water rate study. But those files don’t have enough information about the customers to calculate revenue precisely, and of course, a third year of data would provide more accurate and up-to-date statistics.

Knowing that it would require some effort to extract the utility data from the billing database, I offered to pay up to $100 for the staff time required. After two and a half weeks, however, the city recorder told me that the estimated cost would be $700, computed as three full days spent by a programmer who earns $32/hour. When I tried to ask why the process would be so complicated, the city changed its position and denied my request outright.

According to the official denial letters, the city’s denials are based on a provision of GRAMA saying that, in response to a request, the government is not required to “create a record” or to provide it “in a particular format.” Apparently, the city interprets this provision to mean that when records can’t be provided in the same format in which they are stored (e.g., cumbersome database files that are ordinarily accessed through proprietary software), they needn’t be provided at all.

This interpretation completely ignores other provisions of GRAMA that require the government to segregate private from public records upon request, and that prohibit the government from using “the physical form, electronic or otherwise, in which a record is stored to deny, or unreasonably hinder the rights of a person to inspect and receive a copy of a record.”

Ever since the first denial, on January 9, I’ve been trying to resolve these disputes through informal channels. I’ve asked to speak to the city employees who maintain the records, and received no response. I’ve gone to the newly appointed Utah GRAMA Ombudsman, and asked her to facilitate an informal discussion. After she tried for two weeks to set up a meeting, the city refused to participate.

I’ve therefore appealed both GRAMA denials to the city’s Records Review Board, which will hold a public hearing on the matters this Tuesday, February 19, at 3:30 pm, in the City Recorder’s conference room on the second floor of the Municipal Building. I look forward to finally discussing these matters with city officials face to face, and I am optimistic for a speedy and successful resolution.

For those who are interested in all the gory details, here is the complete hearing agenda packet, including my GRAMA requests, the city's denials, and my appeals.


John N. said...

GRAMA shouldn't even need to exist. There is zero reason nowadays all government decisions, policies, meetings, and discussions can't be fully online and 100% transparent. I really think these people need to be reminded who they work for.

blackrulon said...

It continues to amaze me that the city will spend much more than the simple cost of complying with a GRAMA request fighting and resisting giving out such informatioin. They have no problem charging a taxpaying citizen for getting information that the taxpayers have already paid for with their taxes. Any cost of  by the city fighting the request is paid by using taxpayer money.  The city has no risk, the costs of fighting anything are prepaid by other people.

terrorized_by_opd said...

I have a very small home. I don't irrigate. Why do they think I can use 3300 gals of water in a billing cycle? No leaking faucets, all the fixtures in fact are new. My yard is maybe 10 square feet (my home is very small. 900 sq feet) It's impossible for me to use that much water in a 30 day cycle.

Dan S. said...

Typical indoor residential use is about 1000 gallons per person per month. I use less, but I spend less time at home than most people. Some people use more, if they're home all day and take lots of showers and do lots of laundry.

Smaatguy said...

Why are we taking surplus money from the water utility and putting it elsewhere when we have a waterline project going on right now that is on borrowed money....why not use this surplus to pay that sucker off or reduce the debt...rhetorical question of course because they have been used to using these funds for other concerns....

Smaatguy said...

PS...check out the malarky on the Ogden Valley Forum regarding the waterline project in the Canyon..... in terms of dodging the questions, there is a parallel in my opinion.

Dan S. said...

I'm not overly concerned, at least as an Ogden utility ratepayer, about borrowing money for the Ogden Canyon water line project: the interest rate on the loan is about the same as inflation, thanks to a state subsidy. Of course, as a Utah taxpayer, I'm concerned about providing such subsidies to water utilities state-wide.

Meanwhile, though, the city utility funds are paying market interest rates on $50 million of debt for all the construction projects that began about five years ago. The interest on that debt will be adding to our rates for another 25 years. And that's not all: The city is getting ready to borrow another $20 million, at market rates, to replace the water treatment plant and pay for several storm drain projects. The projects are necessary, but I don't see the need to pay for them with borrowed money when the utility funds have so much cash lying around.

Smaatguy said...


That's a better statement on my thoughts.  Why are we borrowing whe we have cash...

Ogden Lover said...

My old water softener was malfunctioning and a valve was not closing after the system flushed.  After checking for every possible leak, I finally figured it out.  The City said "someone must be stealing my water".

RebelWithACause2 said...

When my utility bill started tripling in cost a about five years ago, I  thought it was to provide a slush fund for the mayor. You may call it a transfer of funds to the General Fund if you prefer, but it is still a surplus for them and a loss for me.

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