Your Budget Story isn’t about the Numbers

Posted on August 9, 2019

floating numbers on blue background
Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Will Hampton.

What I’m reading: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker, PhD

What I’m listening to: Revisionist History Season 4 podcast, by Malcolm Gladwell

What I’m watching: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

It’s budget time down here in Texas, which means we’re engrossed in communications about about our proposed spending plans and tax rates. It’s a tough nut to crack, given that it’s such a dry topic, just pages and pages of numbers, right?


The budget and tax rate votes are the most important the City Council make every year because they express the priorities for our community. Because our revenue make-up is different than most cities – thanks mostly to sales tax generated by Round Rock-based Dell Technologies – we’ve worked really hard over the years to draw attention to the particulars of our fiscal reality.

guy in cat t-shirt holding budget document next to CG cat
Tell the budget story in a compelling way, even if you have to look stupid doing it.

We’ve found really creative ways to deliver the message, from Infomercial to Cat Video to Foodie Friendly. Over the last three years, we stepped up our efforts and embarked on a month-long campaign to really help folks digest the particulars of the budget.

And let’s be honest: The budget is a big, complex document that conveys an incredible amount of information about, in my City’s case, how we’re going to spend nearly $450 million in 12 short months. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers. So don’t. Remember, your budget tells a story.

And what a story! So many interesting characters (see any librarian anywhere)! So much drama (see any public safety department)! So much going on in so many different disciplines, from transportation to planning to firefighting to parks and rec!

But how do you make sense of it all? Simple. It’s called a Strategic Plan, and I’m guessing your community has one. Make sure folks understand how the budget connects to the priorities identified by your leadership in your Strategic Plan.

But most of all, tell the story of what will get done and why. It really is less about the numbers and more about the impact the projects and programs funded by those numbers will have on people’s lives. Tell that story.

And if your city council or commission is going to raise taxes to deliver those programs, there’s no need to apologize for that.

That point was driven home in a conversation I had last weekend. My fiancé and I were out of town, shopping at a cool little gift store. We struck up a conversation with the owner, who lamented a new fee going on everyone’s utility bills to pay for street maintenance. She remarked how they passed a bond a few years ago that was “supposed to take care of all that.” I told her what I did for a living, and said it wasn’t unusual for bond packages to run out of money before all the work gets done, given inflation, cost overruns and whatnot.

“We want to live in nice communities with well-maintained infrastructure and that costs money,” I said, matter-of-factly.

That seemed to be a real revelation to her, but she readily agreed.

Sometimes, the story we need to tell is a simple one, in a straightforward way.

Will Hampton is the Communications and Marketing Director for the City of Round Rock, Texas.

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