Column: Budget season really does matter

05/09/2014 3:00 PM

02/15/2015 11:18 AM

We are in the midst of one of the most interesting seasons of the year: budget season.

It may seem like just so much of an exercise in futility, but the creation of a budget by local governments is a telling exercise.

Over time, I’ve seen town managers, county managers and school superintendents trot out budgets in all kinds of formats. Local government budgets, just like a household budget, are based on a string of assumptions.

They assume a certain amount of revenue coming in each year. They assume a variety of spending priorities depending on the circumstances. They also assume most people won’t ever pay much attention to what’s in the budget.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that, in almost every circumstance, the creation of a budget will always draw strong opinions from the elected leaders who ultimately have a say over where the money goes.

Ultimately, those elected leaders hold their nose and vote for a budget that almost certainly includes spending they don’t like.

Budget season provides an attentive viewer a good picture of an elected leader’s financial leanings.

Some want to see more money spent on employees of that local government. Others are more interested in funding new programs or projects. Many are opposed to tax increases, though they often find themselves voting for a tax increase in the end.

Budgets should be important to the average Joe or Jane because they represent how an elected body wants to spend what is essentially the people’s money. If a school board, for instance, was spending a lot of money to bolster athletic programs, some parents may not be so happy to learn that spending comes at a cost for academics.

In your town, commissioners or council members may be putting funds aside that strictly benefit one person, company or group of people, often to the exclusion of the rest of the taxpaying public. They may be putting public money into an entity that supports a mission that doesn’t exactly geehaw with what the public wants.

The other really interesting part to me is when a local government wants to dip into its savings to balance the budget. Thinking back to our example of a household budget, most of us would work hard to keep from spending money in our savings account. Oftentimes, thankfully, budgeting money from savings is more of a bookkeeping trick than an actual expense.

Other times, though, the government genuinely plans to spend that money. That’s a sign even to the most untested local government observer that money is tight.

The back and forth between elected leaders and the town staf that generally prepares the first draft of the budget is some of the most open discourse you’ll ever see from elected leaders.

Ultimately, though, a budget comes down to people. Elected leaders make human decisions and they will always have to live with those decisions. And, since the public also has to live with the budgetary decisions made by their leaders, it makes sense to me that we’d all want to pay close attention to the process and speak out when it’s still early enough in the process to make changes effectively.

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