Dollars and $ense

Posted on September 1, 2023

Dozens of people standing on the steps of an institutional or government building, some holding signs with messages about funding and budget.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Matt Horn, Director of Local Government Services for MRB Group, and Secretary-Treasurer of the Josh Allen Fan Club’s Central Finger Lakes Chapter. For non-Bills related updates, check him out on LinkedIn.

  • What I’m reading: Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World by Alan Mallach; a global look at the impacts on cities of the impending population balloon burst
  • What I’m watching: Painkiller on Netflix; I’m mortified by the impacts of the opioid epidemic, particularly in my native Appalachia…but interested in Matthew Broderick’s interpretation…also briefly mistook it for a sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • What I’m listening to: A spanking new treadmill playlist with stars from the Golden Age of Rock and Roll – Chicago, Doobie Bros., Stevie Wonder – you try keeping a resting heart rate when “I Just Called to Say I Love You” comes on


Most of us got into public service because we believe that local government is an instrument through which we can affect the greatest change. Whether we’re supporting those who are most in need, or building a community that’s incredibly attractive to visitors (hopefully both), there’s one really annoying factor that comes into play – finance. The bottom line is that, if we can’t ensure a healthy bottom line (see what I did there?) in City Hall, we can’t protect our residents, or attract new investors.

In 2023, that’s no cakewalk (hint: it wasn’t in 2013, 2003, 1993, 1983, or 1973 either). Anyone responsible for local government finance is routinely facing three dragons – consistent upward pricing pressure in expenses, consistent downward political pressure on revenues, and my favorite – consistent shifting cost burdens from state and federal governments to your own balance sheet. In short, revenues are not growing as fast as expenses.  

Aside from not trying to cheer you up, I also want to take this opportunity to introduce a fourth dragon – the future. As local government managers, it always feels like we spend more time developing the budget than executing it. We spend months and months fighting those first three dragons, just in the hope that we won’t end up in a 12-hour City Council budget debate about our proposal. But even if you sneak in under the 10-hour mark, and the gavel falls on your side of the fence, there’s still next year looming out there…and the next…and the next…

Local governments are forever. How can we ensure that the budgets we pass today – the investments we make today – are (first) not doing harm to our future generations of constituents, and (then) ensuring that the money we spend is catalyzing future improvements to quality of life (however you define that)?

Here are a few things to think about between Googling spreadsheet macros to jazz up your budget doc:

  • Start with a Vision (and a supportive plan): I think a great comprehensive plan can be the answer to most challenges (when implemented).  A solid comprehensive plan blends good data with authentic, robust, and meaningful public engagement to chart a path forward. When coupled with best practices, this creates a great framework for future budget discussions.
  • Invest in Economic Development: The two biggest ways to mitigate tax rate impacts on residents are to reduce services (yuck) or to spread the cost of services over a larger base. Economic development investments in small business development, placemaking, and general attraction of new investment mean a stronger quality of life, and a return on funds invested.
  • Beware One-Time and Short-Term Revenues: Never…ever…ever, ever, ever, ever use one-time or short-term revenue boosts to cover recurring costs. Period. End of Sentence. In the case of one-time revenues, those are great reserve boosters or capital investments. For short-term (less than 20-year) revenue spurts, make sure anything you’re funding can be discontinued or sustainably funded inside of the funding window.
  • Prioritize Expenses/Investments: Remember that comp plan? Here’s your chance to use it. If an expense isn’t state or federally mandated, and it doesn’t align with your top priorities, introduce it to the cutting room floor. Build a scoring rubric for spending requests based on your plan. When policymakers want to monkey with revenues (i.e. out-of-the-blue rate cuts), ensure that they understand the effect on your plan’s priorities.

Trust me, I know it’s a lot easier said than done. Me, sitting here on a nice sunny day, tippy-typing away about attracting private investment and executing revenue discipline…MUCH different than the first Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. with an unbalanced budget in front of you (and the world). But the decisions you make are altering the course of your community…for better or worse!

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