So you’ve got a budget on your hands and it’s time to review.
Before you dig in, here are five things we hope will help:
#1: The first thing to know is that reviewing a Standard Operating Budget (SOB) for the upcoming fiscal year is like watching a movie on fast forward. You can’t look at each scene individually or you won’t be able to see the full picture. Instead of focusing on every single detail, try looking at things as they happen across departments and over time. This allows you to identify trends and changes right away, which will make it easier for you to spot problems – if there are any – down the road when budgets start running out of control.
#2: The second thing to know is that budgets are extraordinary documents. When you start reviewing them, you’ll be amazed at all the work that goes into creating them and how many people spend countless hours debating every line item. Even if you’re just required to review a department’s budget, it can help to get involved with the process ahead of time so you will know what to look for when the final version is released.
#3: This brings us to our third point, which is perhaps one of the most important things we don’t want you to forget while reviewing budgets this year: It is not your job. If some city manager, agency head or politician gives it his best shot and presents a reasonable proposal for next year’s budget, it doesn’t mean he got the math wrong or that his priorities are no good. The fact is, you don’t know the first thing about managing money (at least not compared to those who do). So if someone suggests an approach that doesn’t seem reasonable, wait for your chance to voice your opinion and then ask questions. Don’t question their numbers; instead, look for flaws in their thinking and offer alternative options. All of us should do our best to challenge one other and be open to change and improvements – but we also need to remember we’re all on the same team working toward a common goal: making sure taxpayers spend as little as possible while getting as much as possible out of every dollar they into local government coffers.
You may not have all the answers, but chances are you’ll come up with something good.
#4: Here’s another point to keep in mind as you begin reviewing your city or county budget: There will always be a temptation to say no – or yes – if one of more of these items runs counter to what we believe is best for our constituents. Just remember that the person asking for the increase probably has their reasons and is simply trying their best with the information they were given; same with those who request cuts. You owe it to yourself and your community to look at each line item as critically as possible and make the tough calls as objectively as you can . Remember, budgets don’t create problems; it’s how we react to the problems they identify that makes a difference.
#5: Finally, we want to remind you of some last bit of advice we offered in our government finance insight for May: Be an active participant in every conversation about money and budgets. That means getting involved with your city council and county commission meetings and asking questions when appropriate. It’s also why we host just such discussions during our monthly webinars; coming prepared with what you’ve learned from reviewing budgets can make it easier to participate in meaningful ways. If nothing else, try to be responsive by offering the kinds of feedback (positive or negative) budget managers get too little of most months of the year.
So there you go… five things we hope will help as you review budgets this year. Be sure to check back here regularly for more insight into what’s going on in local government finance – and drop us a line if there is any other information you’d like to see from us as we wrap up our latest budget season.