OK. OK. I know. You probably couldn’t care less about what’s in the budget for your town. If the town raises your taxes, then you’re fully prepared to go off on your elected officials. But if they don’t mess with your pocketbook, then the bottom line is you probably don’t really care, unless you’re a town employee hoping for a raise next year.
But here’s my best attempt to explain why you should care. Consider your family’s spending habits. If you like not having to cook, you probably plan to spend a larger amount of money on eating out. If you like to travel, you probably set aside some money from each paycheck to help pay for that next trip. If those paychecks are small, you look to see what you can eliminate. Maybe you go without cable TV or you don’t send your children on all the neat field trips at school.
How you spend your money reflects your priorities.
Just as with a household budget, municipal budgets mirror a town’s priorities. If town leaders are interested in making sure your streets are in good shape and pothole-free, you’re likely to see a sizable chunk of money invested in that expense. If your town leaders want to give more kids the chance to play baseball or softball, you’re going to see more money in the Parks and Recreation budget. If your town leaders are interested in really growing the size of your town, you’ll see a lot of money put into planning and economic development.
The question is, are those things your priorities. Do you really care if there are potholes in the streets? If you’ve ever had to get your car realigned because you ran through a pothole as deep as Falls Lake then you’re probably going to want the town to fix that problem. If you’ve got a 5-year-old who already knows the difference between a catcher and a backstop, then you may want to see more fields and umpires for baseball leagues.
Put another way, your priorities should matter and they should be reflected in the budget your elected leaders approve.
But they don’t necessarily know what’s important to you unless you tell them. And, since most of us don’t pay attention to the budget process, it never occurs for us to tell our elected leaders that money should be set aside for what you think is important. So what happens is, towns hold planning retreats early in the calendar year. Town managers hope to wrangle from their elected leaders some idea of what their priorities are.
Then they go back to their offices in town hall and put together a budget proposal which they believe best reflects what the elected leaders said was important. If they can, they try to put the plan together without asking for a tax increase because they know that will give elected leaders heartburn and they know that will increase the number of people who rake through the budget plan with a fine-toothed comb looking for opportunities to save money and eliminate the tax increase.
I’ll be the first to admit that watching the budget process can be like watching sausage being ground. It’s tedious and it can be confusing. But just a little bit of studious effort on the part of regular folks helps ensure that a town spends its money the way people who foot the bill want it to.
Wendell town manager Teresa Piner said last week she hopes people will take a look at the budget and suggest changes if they have them. It would be a surprise if more than one or two people make suggestions. Other towns haven’t been quite as adamant about seeking public input, though they will all certainly hold public hearings before the plans are adopted. The question is, who really cares?