Big Picture thinking about the budget


Here’s your chance. I’ve opined that the Council has not yet, despite needing to set the preliminary levy in September, had the sort of big picture discussion that I think we should have to be able to make reasonable budget policy (see Welcome Center, Community events).   It looks like our August 24 worksession will be the time for such a conversation, so help me frame that discussion for the Council…

We have

  1. a Comprehensive Plan which advocates for compact and sustainable development,
  2. Council goals which stress communication, sustainability, and proceeding with capital projects
  3. 5 year CIP with 3 major projects
  4. shrinking tax base
  5. probable loss of $2 million of local government aid which we’ve discussed budgeting as a $500,000 reduction each year
  6. staff turnover including beginning to search for a new city administrator

We need to be able to succinctly understand where we are and how we could proceed to conserve taxpayer dollars and fund our highest priorities.  Weigh in now!

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3 responses to “Big Picture thinking about the budget”

  1. Given my recent e-mail to you, these comments will come as no surprise; let’s see what kind of reaction they may get here, from others…

    Item #12, in this weeks (8.17) council packet deals with a budget discussion. I know, Betsey, that you have constantly asked for a big picture look at the budget.
    After reading the staff report for this agenda item, I would ask for some information which is truthful, rather than, IMO, specious, i.e. it sounds OK unless you have been listening and watching the process as it unfolds.

    I think the packet report is insulting to both Council, and citizens. The department by department analysis will not stand up to any true analysis.

    First of all there is an overall scarcity, in this report, of actual $$ numbers, and a proliferation of three sentence narrative summaries.

    Second, this document belies the constant statements from Mayor, Administrator, and Financial staff that after these departmental cutbacks, service cuts to citizens will have to be taken.

    In actuality, this document shows that large service cuts to citizens have already been taken, but have not been acknowledged as such.
    For Example: The library portion of the report notes the reductions of staffing and operational hours as a 15%cut, other line item cuts are not rated with a $$or % figure, and the reduction of materials purchasing budget is stated to be at 29%.
    The Library has no institutional cause for existence except its service to the citizens, therefore this is a large cut in services to the citizens which has already occurred, but is not spoken of as such.

    Another example: In several departments, there are various small cuts noted, which because they are part of a small total number , appear in percentage to be of a larger significance than they are, i.e., in the Finance Dept, training, travel etc. cut from $7600 in 2005 ( 2005 ! ) to $4625 in 2010, is stated to be a cut of 39% , which looks large, until you realize it is under $2000… A totally un-important number in the big picture!

    These are just two of the numerous examples of what I would term ‘specious’ information in this staff prepared report.

    If the Public Budget Hearing on the 23rd is to be anything but lipservice to a more sincere process, then the Council must, in this week’s discussion, begin to grapple with the sort of misrepresentation that occurs in Agenda Item #12.

  2. In the past month, I’ve heard at least four councillors (Buckheit, Pokorney, Pownell, Zweifel) say that they need more information in order to have confidence in their grasp of the “big picture” and ability to make meaningful decisions.

    I would hate to think that our well-paid staff doesn’t know what that information should be, or how to present it, but the fact that I’ve heard this from four intelligent, conscientious people gives me pause.

    I understand that municipal government budgeting is a totally different animal than private sector business, with different needs and different restrictions, and even a different structure. However, this does not obviate the fact that at some base level similar information is required in order to have constructive conversations about setting policy or making changes.

    Reduced to the simplest (and probably overly simplistic) components, I would think that the council would need to know:

    What is the projected balance of unreserved funds for the next 2-3 years, assuming no LGA?

    What are the projected reserved fund balances, and its contractual commitments?

    What are the projected operating expenses for the next 2-3 years?

    What have been the city’s operating expenses in 2008-2010, itemized by department and by category (with a detailed list of exactly what is included in each category)?

    How did projected expenses in 2008-2010 compare with the actual expenses?

    And I’m sure there’s more. Don’t even get me started in the CIP.

    There’s a lot of data in the City financials that needs to be teased out and clarified. For example, the City is required to provide certain services; but there may be more efficient ways to meet those requirements than the ways Northfield has historically taken. These should be reexamined.

    On a related note, I saw an interesting article in USA Today last week, “Federal workers earning double their private counterparts”. It would be interesting to know how City employees’ compensation packages compare with the Northfield average (which is already skewed upward from the state and national averages because of the generous benefit packages of the school district and the colleges).

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