We are intrigued by the idea under review by Garner town council members to consider experimenting with a process called priority-based budgeting. While we think council members need to make sure the system protects obvious needs, it seems to us the new approach to budgeting could also give town leaders a better sense of some of the town’s long-term needs as well.
For many towns and cities, the budget process often calls for slapping a certain percentage growth or decline on the revenue side and a like adjustment on the expense side and then massaging the numbers in both sides to make the equation equal zero. Where budgeting becomes difficult for towns is when they are looking at capital spending. Those large, infrequent expenditures are often important to the effecient functioning of the town, but they are also quite tantalizing places to cut when revenue gets tight.
It’s easy to trim or eliminate an expense that will, essentially, do nothing more than sit in the bank throughout the year and accrue over time. But sometimes that’s what the town needs to do. When it comes time to replace a portion of an aging police department fleet, it’s not wise to pull all that money from one year’s revenues. It’s a much less bitter pill to swallow if the town has been saving up for a few years to prepare for the eventual expense.
Priority-based budgeting would require the town to look a little further down the road and make critical decisions about where they want to devote resources into the future. Of course, one board can not bind the hands of a future councils by requiring that money be spent a certain way years down the road. But a thoughtful examination of priorities makes it much more likely that future councils will see the wisdom in decisions made in the past.
And that would bode well for the future.