The board of the district that handles mosquito control in Marin and Sonoma counties delayed voting on its $7.7 million budget Wednesday night when several members complained they weren't given enough information to make an informed decision.
Officials at the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District later denied a request by The Press Democrat for a full line-item budget, stating first that the document didn't exist, and then stating that they did not have to release information not provided to the board of directors.
"That's completely wrong," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, based in San Rafael, and an expert on government disclosure laws. "You're asking for a complete budget, and there's no justification I can imagine for withholding that, or even part of that."
"A national security agency can justify withholding portions of their budget, but I don't think the weapons used to fight mosquitoes are classified," Scheer said.
In its denial, the district cited the Freedom of Information Act, but that law applies to federal agencies, not local entities. The district is subject to the California Public Records Act, which requires that public agencies release documents whether or not they were distributed to its board.
A partial line-item budget was provided after requiring the newspaper to fill out a Public Records Act Request form, but the document included just $2.7 million of the $7.7 million in proposed spending for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, and did not include any information about salaries or benefits.
Board members at the Wednesday night meeting had even less information than that at the time scheduled for the budget vote.
"I've never seen a four-page budget with the least amount of detail for a $7.7 million budget," said Frank Egger, a board member who represents the city of Fairfax. "This board needs to have more details."
Egger complained that the budget document given to board members had blank spaces instead of numbers where there should have been information about salaries, benefits and capital outlay expenses.
Sandy Ross, who represents Mill Valley, said the board's budget committee should have made sure there were no blank spaces. "Those should all be filled out and presented to us in a way in which we can vote on it," she said.
The district will start the new budget year July 1 with about $10 million in the bank, according to the summary budget document distributed to its board. It estimates it will bring in about $7.3 million in tax collections.
The surplus amounts to about 140 percent of its budget while many government entities operate with a surplus of less than 10 percent.
Board members began questioning the district's financial decisions when the outgoing general manager was offered a retirement package that would have spiked his pension. The package was changed so the pension will not be increased.
At the Wednesday night meeting, Tom Bradner of Larkspur, former president of the board, said the budgeting process is a work in progress that will improve next year.
"We generally provide the district manager with a lot of flexibility on how the actual spending goes, within reason, over the course of the year," Bradner said.
Nizza Sequeira, the district public relations director, said in an email that the document received by the board was in a format requested by the board's budget committee.