It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Budget Season!
For communities operating on a July 1 fiscal year, March Madness means more than just college basketball. Spring is the time for many municipalities to forecast their resources for the coming year, prioritize new initiatives, and ensure they are following through on existing obligations. It’s also a great time for more intentional resident engagement to embrace the voice of the community in the budgeting process.
In my local government career, I have had the chance to play a role in the budget processes of three different communities—as a management intern in Fort Collins, Colo., the budget officer in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and now assistant to the city manager in Goodyear, Ariz. Through my experience, I have learned that the budget is so much more than a financial plan. The budget tells the story of a community, from its values to its aspirations.
When navigating budget season, I like to keep in mind eight “Ps”: Policies, Principles, Priorities, Process, People, Personalities, Perspectives, and Politics.
- Policies and Principles: The foundation of a city budget is made up of policies and principles driven by the elected leadership and management. While the content of these vary across jurisdictions, they set the tone for what might be achieved through the budget. Policies and principles may contemplate issues like how conservatively to budget, an approach to personnel and capital improvement planning, how final decisions are made, or what level of reserve funds are appropriate. The decisions on these issues may be unique to different places, but having a core understanding of these fundamentals is crucial to success in budget development.
- Priorities: Many jurisdictions have established an organization-wide approach to strategy and priority setting. This could be as sophisticated as a comprehensive performance management system and strategic plan, or as simple as annual executive goal setting. Priorities may be managed on an annual or longer-term basis depending on the planning cycles of a community—for example, one might have a 10-year capital improvement plan, a five-year asset replacement plan, and one-year operations plan. Some communities set clear priorities through tools like citizen surveys or city council retreat sessions. Regardless of the method, it is essential to understand priorities when assembling a budget so that tough decisions regarding resource allocation can be made and justified.
- Process: Having worked with three different cities in this process, I know that every organization has its own nuanced approach to drafting a budget. While processes can be different depending on the jurisdiction, consistency and predictability of that process helps to establish expectations in each step of development. Clear roles must be defined among city staff and departments, city management, and elected officials and legal deadlines must be met. How this process is conducted provides clues about an organization’s culture as well: Is there a great deal of collaboration and discussion, or are decisions made by a select few? There’s no right answer, but it informs how the organization conducts business.
- People- Personalities, Perspectives and Politics: Believe it or not, in my budgeting experience, working with the actual dollar figures was a very small piece of the process. Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day a local government budgets must be balanced and estimates must be as accurate as possible, but the numbers are only a very small part of the story. As budget officer, I predict I spent about 75 percent of my time managing people and 25 percent of my time with numbers. Budget decisions are often emotional. At budget hearings, council members and residents can spend more time talking about a $5,000 item than a $5,000,000 item if that is one of their personal priorities. The key to success during budget season is tapping into your emotional intelligence and empathy to understand why issues are important to the stakeholders and ensuring that their perspectives are valued in shaping the final document.
To those of you currently in the thick of your budget season, I wish you the best of luck!
Pam Weir has been the assistant to the city manager in Goodyear, Ariz., since April 2016. Prior to this, she served as the management analyst and budget officer in Sierra Vista, Ariz. for two years.
Weir’s previous municipal government experience includes service as the management assistant in Fort Collins, Colo., where she helped write the organization’s first enterprise-wide strategic plan. She also served on a temporary assignment with the town of Estes Park, Colo., in 2013, assisting the town in disaster recovery efforts from the autumn floods. Prior to her time in Colorado, she was the management intern for Avondale, Ariz.
Weir holds a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in Urban Management from Arizona State University, where she was also named a Marvin Andrews Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She is a member of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the Arizona City/County Management Association (ACMA), and Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). Weir also serves as the chair for the Alliance for Innovation’s NextERA Advisory Group, representing the next generation of local government managers to promote innovation and collaboration in the profession.
Having grown up in the Grand Canyon State, Weir is passionate about helping to shape the long-term future of Arizona communities, both through her local government service and other volunteer activities.