Telling a Story with Your Budget Message with Clay Pearson, City of Pearland, TX

Posted on April 27, 2015

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City of Pearland, TX: Adopted Budget – Fiscal Year 2017-18

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…….budget season! We love budgets. We love pie charts. We especially love a healthy fund balance.

Our SW ELGL chapter gets you in the mood by interviewing Clay Pearson, Pearland (TX) city manager, about writing the all-important budget message. Some city managers employ ghost writers to develop the message, some take a hybrid approach, and some just do it themselves.

Before we hear from Clay, read his budget message from FY 2014-15 which was developed around the theme of “Planting Seeds for the Future.” Our favorite part of the message, you ask,
“The garden that is Pearland is big. It has well-prepared soil. It is planted with a mix of flora that ranges from the life-sustaining to simply aesthetic. But it is still in many way a relatively young garden. It is not self-sustaining and in many ways will always be interdependent with our surroundings. And our fully-blossomed community has not yet completely taken root.”
Now that you’ve learned about gardening and budgeting on to the interview.
Be honest. Do you write your own budget messages?
Yep, with lots of help.  A document like this requires edits, additions, reality checks, and numbers.  All of that requires circulating multiple drafts to get to the final finished product.
Walk us through the process when you sit down to write your budget message.
Usually six months into a current fiscal year which is six months before the start of a next one, I start to mentally hone in on a theme.  That theme is something is a hook relevant to the city’s current and future; a hook to hang examples, initiatives, and numbers.  I usually start drafting at the tail end of the budget preparation process, three weeks before delivering the recommended budget, after we have nailed down the big items and have idea of the issues.  I draft and circulate around one-by-one to a series of staff for editorial comments and how things read.  One of the final drafts gets sent to the Finance/Budget people to add in the numbers.
What topics you always included in your budget messages? What key indicators do you usually highlight?
There’s a certain standard flow to talk about General Fund revenues and expenditures, major capital purchases, and to do the same for the major utility funds.  I always talk about fund balance in some fashion.  A budget is the most critical annual work of the City Council and staff, but it’s only for twelve months.  I try to always emphasize trends and where we could be three-plus years based on current trajectory.  It is a lot easier to make adjustments in year one of a three-plus year time horizon.
We noticed a pattern; all of the Budget Documents in communities you have managed have themes. What is the value in having a theme for your Budget Document? How do you use that theme when you write your transmittal?
Planting Seeds and Virtuous Circles are themes used in past City budgets.  The theme is intended to tie together what could otherwise be a very dry document and bring it to life a little.  For me, the theme is a way to keep a reader’s interest for this important time when the City Council is wrestling with the annual budget and the multi-year financial plan.  The motif can also be used during the budget year for updates and other communications about happenings in the community.
When you sit down to write, who do you think of as your audience? Are you targeting a certain group of people with your message?
The City Budget is the Mayor and City Council’s policy plan.  They are the first audience.  There’s generally something for each Council member within the transmittal, one of their priorities.   I also think about staff and community stakeholders, trying to mobilize all the community resources to move the city forward.  I really do think the budget is a special time when attention is on the policy document and thus you have the reader’s attention to think about that community’s strengths and opportunities.
Do you think it is critical to have a budget message in your Annual Budget?
Absolutely.  The message is the city manager’s opportunity to introduce and highlight what’s important in the numbers.
People think of numbers when they think of the budget but previous budgets you have overseen have lots of graphics and narrative as well. Is the narrative as important as the numbers?
Visual presentations of information are critical.  You can have rows of numbers, or you can have a clear presentation of those numbers to help the reader understand the content.  The content is what’s important and you can have graphics to make that content accurately reflect reality.
Do you have any advice for early-career managers sitting down to write their first budget message?
I get real kick out of writing the letter.  Have fun with it.  Take advantage of the opportunity.  Just sit down and write, let other people give you feedback and incorporate that where you think makes sense.  Seize the opportunity to tell your community’s story.

Supplemental Reading


City of Pearland, Texas : Budget

MI: Clay Pearson, City of Novi, City Manager

The Transition with Clay Pearson, City of Pearland, TX

Knope of the Week: Clay Pearson, Pearland (TX)

Infowhatnow? How Infographics Can Tell Your City’s Story

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