Guest Commentary: The local government budget cycle

by Mike Sawyer

I find it interesting to be a now seasoned first-hand observer in the local Chesterfield County budget cycle. Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.  

I have put together four key takeaways for those that do not follow the laundering business. I will touch upon special interests at the trough, budget “shortfalls,” the meals tax “ruse,” and finally true budget transparency that brings accountability.  (After all, we want a clean budget).

The most participation I see throughout the budget year is during the budget request session where special interests are looking for taxpayer assistance.  It is human nature to want to use someone else’s labor to meet one’s objectives in life.  It is oddly the high water mark in county meeting attendance as well. It is where the meeting room becomes too small for the number and size of the requests made.  The rest of the year there appears to be very little time that these interests devote to local government matters. Most seem content to let others influence how Chesterfield County functions even though the local level has the most impact on their family’s daily lives.  I would encourage more participation and to build relationships with your elected officials and your county and school administrators. When an issue comes up, one will have wanted to have a good idea of how the process works to be effective.

Next up schools. You know one year it would be refreshing to see the county school board and administration submit a balanced budget.  Each year the media portrays a budget crisis of epic proportions and a “shortfall” to ask the average taxpayer Jones for more, more, more. We are so used to living with a federal government and their “AND” approach.  The United States Congress wants this “AND” this “AND” that, too.  One would never know that our current county proposed budget is 5 to 7 percent higher than the previous year. Yet, it is always shown as a “shortfall.”

The meals tax… yes, I will talk about the pink elephant in the room… was a ruse. I will say this as nicely as I can.  The approved bond referendum for both the school revitalization and the public safety issues could have always been set for a nine-year period instead of seven years to be paid off with existing county revenues.  The fact that the Board of Supervisors is heading this way now proves it.  I think many in the limited core government services crowd still believe that the schools needed to be revitalized and  that it could be done within the existing budget. A truism never truer.  A good budget is always about setting priorities. Fortunately, the county administration has provided leadership to reduce service levels in non-core service areas to fund more teachers and school building renovations.  With an online checkbook, both sides could find “the truth” quicker and then get about the business of setting these priorities.

Which brings us to transparency… Whether one is for or against a tax, one should favor increased budget transparency, which brings true accountability.  The County Department of Budget and Management will point to their Distinguished Budget Presentation Award presented by the Government Financial Officers Association and will cite that as the reason to go no farther.  What is interesting is that to date those that have favored a higher tax rate have been tacit on increasing budget transparency.  So, it appears to be only the limited government side (you know those favoring core services and figuring out acceptable service levels) that is requesting the county’s checkbook and budget to be placed online. What I do not understand is that no matter your position on taxes and tax rates, one should want to know how your money was spent. 

These requested budgeting tools make it easy to understand where your money is going when you pay taxes. We need a commonplace where everyday citizens can compare previous years to the current and future years and see “how-many-from-whom” checks the county wrote.  Just about every bank or credit card offers a visualization tool to see where your money is going.  Many local governments and the Commonwealth of Virginia offer this same simple service.  One last analogy: An online checkbook with better visualization tools is the equivalent of requesting GPS units on county school buses to improve bus route selection because it saves fuel costs and time.  With these budget tools, citizens can participate and make a difference.

Over my short life, I think I can safely say this. Now is the time in Chesterfield County to use 21st Century budget transparency technology and to give its citizens the tools for full participation.  Everyone feels like they have been through the wringer this budget cycle. And for good reason. We have been kept in the dark.  It has been said recently, and I concur, that I would rather have the full sunlight shine on our budget cycle with some broken clothespins than to be led in the darkness by candlelight and a very busy budget director. Transparency and accountability now.

This Op-Ed was written to meet the requirements of Level II Course Certification from the TN Center for Self-Governance.

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