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Late Billings, Changing Numbers
Frustrate Council Members

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - August 15, 2003

After hearing $1.3 million in bills for 2002 work must be paid from an overtaxed 2003 budget, irritated Northwest Power and Conservation Council members this week took to task Bonneville Power Administration fish and wildlife contract management practices, and managers.

The full Council on Wednesday reluctantly voted 7-1 to recommend the expenditure with Montana's Ed Bartlett noting inadequate funding would retard the progress of those ongoing fish and wildlife projects. The lone nay vote was cast by Montana Councilor John Hines, who suggested that $836,000 be cut from the recommendation. That's the amount of the "budget adjustment" needed to keep a NOAA Fisheries estuary research project on track.

The Council staff was informed two weeks ago by BPA that additional funding would be required from several projects during fiscal 2003, NPCC staffer Patty O'Toole told the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee Tuesday. Most of that $1.3 million total was for work completed in fiscal 2002.

"And we're just finding out about it now?" Tom Karier of Washington asked of the NOAA budget adjustment, which accounts for nearly 65 percent of the total adjustment. "They just forgot to mention it. Is that what I'm hearing?"

"This doesn't reflect well on the administration of this effort," Karier said.

BPA's Bob Austin said he could not explain how such a large amount went unaccounted for nearly a year, other than to say that federal agencies as a rule only send out bills a few times a year. He also said there was a change midway through the period in the BPA personnel in charge of monitoring the contract.

"We're working to change how we work with our federal partners," Austin said of those billing processes.

"I'm also deeply frustrated with where we're at with these '03 adjustments," Therese Lamb, BPA's acting vice president for Environment, Fish and Wildlife, told the Council. She said the shift to an accrual method of calculating fish and wildlife program costs has been in some cases confusing for project sponsors. The accrual method counts actual spending during the fiscal year.

New policies established by Bonneville during 2003 established an overall program spending limit of $139 million and project spending caps. They also disallowed a former practice of allowing the carryover of funds from one year to the next. That means that bills for 2002 work now have to be paid from a budget already filled with $139 million worth of projects that the Council has recommended for 2003 funding.

"As I understand, the 02 books are closed," said Austin, deputy director of BPA's fish and wildlife division. He and Lamb pointed out that the agency is developing budget management protocols that would improve the flexibility of the accrual system. Included would be more strict billing deadlines. Also in the works is implementation of new project management and oversight systems that more closely charts the pace of project work and billings.

Several Councilors expressed frustration their program was being undercut after they had spent much of the winter trying to bring spending down to the $139 million level. BPA had estimated that the program would overspend by as much as $40 million during 2003, because of an increase in new project approvals and because of anticipated billing for work done in previous years. The Council trimmed back project budgets and deferred work and habitat acquisitions to balance the budget.

"This Council has just turned itself upside down to help Bonneville in this financial crisis," Oregon Councilor Melinda Eden said of effort to cut costs.

The Council chair, Judi Danielson of Idaho, said the late payment for 2002 work could have the effect of bumping deserving 2003 work. The Council conditioned its recommendation that the $1.3 million be provided only if Bonneville could identify a funding source -- planned 2003 project expenditures that will not be incurred.

Rod Sando, executive director of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, pointed out that this was the third set of budget adjustments requested since the Council presented its balanced budget in February.

"With this decision, it must be $6 or $7 million" billings for 2002 work that has been rolled into the 2003 budget, Sando said.

The most recent adjustments are for 15 projects with none except the NOAA project exceeding $100,000.

Barry Espenson
Late Billings, Changing Numbers Frustrate Council Members
Columbia Basin Bulletin, August 15, 2003

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