Guest Commentary: Effective budgeting in challenging times

While reading the front page article in last Sunday’s Eagle, “City Budget Cuts Don’t Please All,” I became concerned about numerous misleading comments, including comparing our financial process to “renovating a house while it’s on fire,” and council’s direction to explore additional cost savings as a “financial witch hunt.”

In an effort to be better prepared for the likely challenging economic conditions ahead, at our last City Council and workshop meeting, I recommended and council supported the adoption of a more rigorous budgeting approach for the next fiscal year.

Council also directed the city manager to examine additional cost reduction opportunities in this year’s budget to build up our reserves and help us prepare for next year.

In an effort to help jump-start this analysis, I developed and reviewed with Council a list of potential opportunities to reduce operating expenses, without any personnel reductions or impact on essential city services. This included the need to review more than $2.5 million in support expenses (non-personnel budget categories).

I also expressed my concern that previous budget reduction recommendations by city staff focused too much on service impacting areas and important infrastructure needs.

The city manager is scheduled to provide his recommendations regarding additional expense reduction opportunities at our Dec. 7 City Council meeting. Also, the council gave no direction for him to implement any cost reduction measures prior to that meeting.

In a recent meeting with Mr. Thompson to further explain suggestions for cost reductions, I again expressed my frustration regarding staff’s inability to provide line item summaries of expense categories for next year’s budget, and the lack of timely information on current expenses. I mentioned that this should not involve a lot of work and could be implemented with a simple spreadsheet program.

To summarize, a more rigorous budget planning and management approach is a critical enabler for council and staff to be able to lead our city forward in these challenging economic times. This should provide a framework to help understand both how to execute basic city operations most efficiently and how to best prioritize future needs.

We also need to adopt a more positive, constructive approach to examining opportunities for operating our city government more efficiently. It is important to move past the fear mongering and claims of political motives, and work together to ensure that our residents are receiving the maximum value for their tax dollar. If examining opportunities to run our city more efficiently is just a political effort, as implied in the article I referred to earlier, then I am “guilty as charged.”

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