Mayor Sandbek sits down with the BJ-T to discuss Braman's financial future

by Jordan Green

EDITOR'S NOTE: Things have been interesting in Braman for the last few months. After the town clerk resigned in April without handing over computer passwords and other important information to elected officials, it was discovered that the town had not completed its 2017 – 2018 fiscal year budget. That left officials without updated financial figures. Marv Sandbek, who was elected as the town's mayor in April, has been spearheading efforts to restore the town's financial solvency. We sat down with him to find out how Braman leaders will do that in the 2019 – 2020 fiscal year. Here's what he had to say.

Q: Thanks for your time, Mr. Sandbek. The town of Braman is gearing up for the 2019 – 2020 fiscal year, and the Board of Trustees has passed a budget for that year. What are some of the financial challenges the town will face in the upcoming year?

A. Our most significant budget challenges are influenced by factors that reside outside of the traditional budgeting process. For example, we continue the process of determining what our annual income actually is – or should be – as derived from the sale of utilities, revenue from sales tax collections, and other customary sources of municipal income. Without going into great detail, I can state with confidence that the accurate forecasting of our annual income will take months to determine. With that being said, the Board of Trustees – along with the assistance of budgeting experts – has built and approved a reasonable and attainable financial roadmap for the 2019 - 2020 fiscal year.

Q: The budget for the 2019- 2020 fiscal year will be the first budget you have crafted since you were elected as mayor earlier this year. What are some of the most important things you have learned about the town's finances from your time working on this budget?

A: In my opinion, the most important factor in crafting a budget is knowing where the budget stands – or is projected to stand – at the close of the previous fiscal year. I have learned a great deal about the budgeting process from Blackwell City Manager Janet Smith. She is extremely knowledgeable in all facets of the budgeting process, and she has been very helpful to the Braman community. Ms. Smith’s analytical, experienced approach to budget analysis and forecasting has been a great resource for our Board of Trustees in evaluating both our fiscal capabilities and limitations. We are very fortunate to have her assistance.

Q: How will this budget be different from the town's budget for the 2018 – 2019 fiscal year?

A: Braman’s Fiscal Year 2019 - 2020 budget, in three distinct categories, represents a significant departure from those of previous years – specifically those published during the previous three fiscal periods. First, this budget focuses on fiscal conservancy – obtaining the greatest benefit for our community for each dollar invested. Secondly, this budget allows for greater accountability and tracking of resources and expenditures. We’ve enlisted the assistance of a volunteer financial comptroller to assist us in this endeavor. Finally, the 2019 - 2020 budget addresses the realities of our current financial situation, a matter which is being evaluated and measured by our auditor and other experts in the municipal financial arena. Accordingly, the Town of Braman's 2019 - 2020 fiscal year budget is considerably “leaner” and more “focused” than those budgets covering the last 36 months. We will continue to monitor this new budget closely to evaluate its effectiveness.

Q: Does the town expect to have any financial losses in the upcoming fiscal year? If so, how much are they, and are any steps being taken to correct them?

A: The Board of Trustees has carefully examined various general ledger documents and utility billing statements that suggest the need for better tracking of annual income, timely and accurate accounting of all expenditures, and ensuring that the municipality does not spend more than it earns. At this time, because of the many questions we have regarding recent budgets, profit-and-loss summaries, cash-flow analyses, and general ledger entries, we cannot establish an accurate “base” from which to measure profit-versus-loss. Having mentioned that, I can state that there exist several “left-over” projects that need to be repaired, upgraded and/or replaced. In consideration of “left-overs” as a debit against our resources, it would be fair to say that we have some unplanned expenses ahead, all of them representing a “negative” to our cash flow.

Q: What is the town's biggest expenditure, and which departments will receive the largest funding allocations?

A: In the last three fiscal years, costs associated with the previous employees had, by far, the greatest impact on Braman’s annual budgets. According to budget documents, the municipality designated more than $100,000 per year to fund salaries and benefits for two employees – the city clerk and the utility technician. Simply stated, Braman, a town of 210 citizens, could not afford that expenditure. Accordingly, we have trimmed the employee budget to more accurately reflect the needs of our community, and to reflect the ability of our community to pay for services rendered. Our municipal office hours have been reduced from 25 per week to 15 per week. Our utility and maintenance concerns are now addressed by part-time, as-needed employees who work on specific tasks that are budgeted for with specific spending limits. We are proceeding slowly and evaluating every expenditure, seeking ways to be more efficient and productive. So, to answer your question in a word, our biggest expenses are pay and benefits.

Q: Will any funds for infrastructure improvements be set aside in the 2019 – 2020 fiscal year? If so, what projects will those funds be used on?

A: The Board of Trustees has set aside modest amounts of income for specific community improvements. For example, $2,500 is set aside for renovation of the museum, $3,000 is set aside for improvements at the city park, and $2,500 is set aside for streets and alleyways. That might not sound like much, and it isn’t. However, it’s in line with what we can afford at this time, and it’s an $8,000 improvement over recent municipal budgets. What we have been forced to do this fiscal year is to dedicate $16,500 for legal services and auditing services, monies that were not identified or designated in the 2018 - 2019 budget. Additionally, the 2017 - 2018 audit had not been completed when I began my term in April, so arrangements have been in the works to comply with the law and get Braman up-to-date on annual auditing and budgeting requirements. Regarding our much-needed infrastructure upgrade and replacement needs, I can assure you that we are working hard to develop an achievable plan and timetable to bring infrastructure improvements to the Braman community. Because we have very limited reserve funds to work with, we must first get into a position to effectively compete for grants. In that effort, I have contacted officials from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Northern Oklahoma Development Authority, and other grant sources to determine what Braman must do in order to become a candidate for grant consideration. I’ve learned that we must first get our audits up-to-date. We must have all budget documents submitted to the state auditor for review. And, we must enlist the assistance of a grant writer and a grant administrator to produce and submit our grant applications. Our infrastructure improvement targets are water supply and distribution, electrical supply and distribution, and our municipal swimming pool. These initiatives will take years to complete, but we are starting the process now and working as efficiently as possible for as long as it takes to reach our infrastructure improvement goals. 

Q: Going forward, what can the town do to improve its budget-making process?

A: I have learned valuable budget lessons during the past three months, and I have learned many of them by observing the city of Blackwell's budgeting process. Among those lessons was a presentation by Mr. Frank Crawford, president of Crawford & Associates, P.C., an accounting firm in Oklahoma City. He has designed a budgeting tool called “The Performeter.” It is a simple yet genius approach to evaluating your budget situation, identifying your budget strengths and weaknesses, and determining the most optimum budget performance objectives for the upcoming fiscal year. Going forward, I can see the Town of Braman using Mr. Crawford’s formula to achieve financial stability while reaching our budget objectives. Using this formula, the Board of Trustees is projecting a $15,300 revenue surplus at the end of fiscal year 2019 - 2020. If we can achieve that goal, it will be the first time in several years that our municipality has finished the fiscal year “in the black.”

Q: Where can citizens find out more about the budget?

A: I encourage all Braman citizens and other interested individuals to contact our municipal clerk during established business hours to obtain a copy of our 2019 – 2020 budget. Our address is 302 Broadway Avenue. We are open for business Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 9 a.m. - 1 p.m., and Tuesday 4 p.m. - 7 p.m. You may call the clerk at 580-385-2169 during business hours.