Matt Monedero is a Budget Analyst with the City of Garland, TX. He lives and breathes budgets so we’ve asked him to educate those of us who spend a little less time around budgets.
Getting to Know (and Love) a Budget
Welcome fellow ELGLerites to the first installment in a sixty-seven part series, Getting to Know Your Budget. We will begin by discussing an item that any leader in local government deals with at some point in their careers, either willingly or reluctantly. No, not a workplace drug test! The correct answer is…what IS a municipal budget, Alex.
The Breathtaking Feel and Touch of a Budget
Before we begin reviewing what a local government budget entails, let me emphasis that the only real way to understand a municipal budget is to become familiar with the annual budget document in your organization. I guarantee there are a few extra hard copies lying around the Budget Office, and if that effort fails, most municipal websites have their entire budget document available online.
A budget document will more than likely look like the one above from the City of Fort Lauderdale, FL, which includes the fiscal year the budget discusses, the municipality being discussed, and the city’s best attempt to cover a diverse group of citizens awkwardly having fun in a non-urban blight area.
Fort Lauderdale prefaces their budget document with the following,
We have made every effort to make the Annual Budget as easy as possible to read, but we understand how difficult it can be to find what you are looking for in such a complex document. To make your search easier, we have provided a number of tools to help you get what you need. The Annual Budget consists of six (6) major sections: Introduction, Budget Overview, Financials, Department Budgets, Community Investment Plan, and Appendix.
Feel the Flow of the Budget
When cracking open your freshly-printed budget document, you need to review a few key sections (it’s true, not every page is a must read) at the front of the document. The key sections highlight the essence of the municipality and, consequently, what the municipality’s budget is all about. The first section to read through is the Community Profile. This section covers everything from population to demographics, government structure to mission and vision statements. To better understand the character (or flavor, if you will) of the municipality, this section will enlighten you.
Bill Clinton or Clarence Thomas
Next up is the City Manager’s Message to Council – aka The Budget Message. (Note: some city manager have staffers “ghost write” the message.) The City Manager’s Message may range from one page (Clarence Thomas-type approach) to 30 pages (Bill Clinton-type approach) depending on the size of your city, or the complexity of the budgetary issues. In essence, the Budget Message is the City Manager’s blueprint for the budget, laying out policy issues, staffing changes, community feedback, and other major issues foreseen for the next fiscal year.
Cliff Notes Version of the Budget
The final section to review is the Budget Overview (aka the Budget-in-Brief). This section covers it all:
- How big is the budget?
- What projects and initiatives are being carried out this year?
- And, most importantly, does the budget have a date to Saturday’s dance (a.k.a do revenues match expenditures.)
A city or county budget tells a complete, detailed story. You can think of the Budget Overview as the Cliff Notes version – conveying the story in an adequate, yet succinct way. You become familiar with all of the characters (staff, elected officials, revenue funds, etc.) and moving pieces (tax increases, changes to fee structure, etc.).
I must forewarn you that your first time reading the overview might be lackluster and overwhelming. (Similar to the Sopranos finale.) Don’t get discouraged by the pesky numbers and percentages. You must keep in mind the “bigger story” that is painted in other parts of the document. To fully comprehend a budget overview takes time and practice and years of experience so you might as well get started now.
One Down, 66 More Articles Remain
Get rested up because our next discussion will delve into the world of tax levies, property taxes, and proposals being considered by the Texas Legislature to lower the revenue cap, which would put further limits on increases in the property tax levy (SPOILER: That’s not a good thing for local governments in Texas).