Just doesn’t track

It all began with a simple question. Sitting in a City Council meeting, listening to conservatives decry—again—money spent on consultants, I wondered: “Are any of these contracts saving the city money?”

City Hall is full of sharp people, but they aren’t experts on everything. Surely there must be matters for which it makes practical and fiscal sense to hire outside professionals.

This seemed like a line of inquiry just perfect for Richard Ek, who’d recently finished an exhaustive cover story identifying the source of the city’s budget imbalance (more on that later). He gamely took on the challenge … and found a wholly unexpected answer.

It’s virtually impossible to tell.

See, the city doesn’t track consultant fees. Even if ordered by the City Council or the city manager, Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy would be hard-pressed to come up with an estimate, let alone the actual expenditure.

Wait, it gets worse.

In order to figure out the amounts, Hennessy told Ek that he’d have to go project by project and ask each project director to specify the individual consultants in order to locate their payments. Not one to be easily dissuaded, Ek decided to play detective on 20 projects (the city has 350-some), logging months of investigation before filing the news story that appears in this issue.

I realize consultant fees aren’t the biggest expenditure Hennessy could track, even if they represent millions of dollars.

Still, I can’t help think of my employer, Chico Community Publishing, which has maybe a 10th the wherewithal of City Hall. Each week, I sign off on expenses for freelance writers and photographers. Not only can our controller say how much we spend on each category, she can break that down by month, issue or even individual contributor.

It’s great that the Finance Department is going to give it the old college try … with the proviso that consultant fees may take too much time to chart.

It’s mind-boggling that this didn’t happen earlier.

A fine accounting: When the CN&R published Doc Ek’s “Breaking the bank” special report last March, we knew the municipal budget was an important issue for Chico. Little did we know it would resonate elsewhere, but it obviously did, since the California Newspaper Publishers Association recently honored it as the Best Business/Financial Story in a large weekly.

That piece and others we wrote about the city deficit also earned us the Public Service prize. We also received first-place plaques for Best Editorial Comment for the March 8, 2007, editorial about the Chico Unified School District (”Send ’em to the principal’s office") and—for the second straight year—Best Editorial Pages. Kudos to my editorial board partner, Robert Speer.

All in all, the CN&R got 10 CNPA awards. Our honorable mentions came for writing (my council-rookies cover story “An officer and a gentlewoman"), layout/design, special issue (Goin’ Chico), business/financial story (Mark Lore’s Internet radio cover story “Different wavelengths"), sports story (Christine G.K. LaPado’s Ability First cover story “Happy campers") and feature story (Meredith J. Cooper’s Capt. Don hospice series).

Congrats to our sister paper in Sacramento on its second General Excellence award and The Orion at Chico State for placing first among four-year college papers.

Poetry 99
The deadline for the CN&R’s short-poem contest is Halloween eve—that is, 5 p.m. Friday (Oct. 31). Drop off those final entries at the office (353 E. Second St.) or send ’em by e-mail (<script type="text/javascript" language="javascript"> </script>).