PREPARE CITY BUDGET WITH PUBLIC SERVICE IN MIND
Some 23 years ago when I landed my first job as City Finance Director, an older City Manager (may he rest in peace) taught me some simple, strong lessons about preparing a Budget for acceptance by the community and adoption by the City Council. I held a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree and had six years prior experience as an Administrative Analyst preparing complex Budgets for a neighboring City. I knew all about Budget preparation! What could this old guy possibly teach me about Budget preparation that I didn’t already know?
Well, I “thought” I knew all about preparing a City Budget, certainly a simple Line-Item Budget! But this old guy knew a lot more than I initially gave him credit for. He knew what was most important in preparing a City Budget: the public.
Now, as an “old timer” myself (I’m not that old!), I want to reflect on this crucial lesson to all of us in City budgeting and financial management. As young, first-time City Directors with college degrees, we sometimes become so full of our own power and importance that we forget what preparing a City Budget is really about. I certainly did. 23 years ago, I was far more focused on how beautiful or accurate the City budget looked than on what the Budget did to improve the quality of life for the community!
Yes, my job as City Finance Director was not just a job. What made the role so powerful was that it was public service.
When I got my attitude adjustment from this old City Manager, this notion of “public service” would serve as my constitution during the next two decades as I carried out my job as Budget preparer.
To say that my attitude adjustment lesson was a humbling experience is an understatement. It was a hard learned lesson, but let me say that I am so grateful to have learned it so early in my career. Part of my continued public service work is to hand that wisdom down to the incoming generations of Directors and Managers.
Bottom Line: We need to keep the public interest at the forefront of our minds when we prepare the City Budget. We must remember that we are public servants whose job is to serve the people of our community, not to be served by the people. The millions of dollars we play with in the City budget belong to the people, not to us. Our job is merely to serve as a Scribe (with technical expertise, of course), entering the Budget needs of the community (as understood by the City Council and through public hearings). It is an honor to be given the privilege and trust to prepare the City Budget, managing millions of dollars of community resources for the benefit of thousands of people (all of the people) who live in our community.
PRESENTING THE BUDGET
REMEMBER, BETTER BUDGETING MODELS TAKE A YEAR TO IMPLEMENT…
At this point in the Budget Calendar, you have the Budget model that will be presented to the community and the Council for adoption. This is no time to be making changes to the format of the City Budget document. I learned this the hard way early on in my municipal career. When I was an Administrative Analyst at the City of Hemet, I had much latitude to make changes to the format of the traditional Line-Item Budget which had been followed since the inception of the City. As an MPA student, I had learned that Program Budgets or Performance Budgets (among other Budget models) lead to better budgeting decisions. And since I was still so full of myself, I went ahead and tried to change the budget model to one of these “better” models during the few months leading up to Budget presentation! Big mistake.
I will discuss my “bad” experience from playing with “better” Budget models in a future edition of CitySpeak newsletter, but for now, it is sufficient to tell you, as a public servant, NOT to change the Budget model your community (and City Council) has been used to seeing without at least one full year of advance preparation.
WISER BUT ALWAYS MORE TO LEARN…
By the time I landed my first job as Director of Finance at neighboring City of San Jacinto, I was much wiser, but I still lacked the experience of presenting a City Budget at the Director level, which is very different from presenting a City Budget at the Analyst level. When you speak as a Director in public, it matters, so I had to learn to “budget” my words, as well as the City’s finances.
At one point, my City Manager told me, “John, I don’t want to hear any more about your program or performance Budget mumbo-jumbo. All you have to tell the community and the Council is the following during the annual Budget presentation:
- How much will be coming in?
- How much will be going out?
- How much do we have in the bank?”
Needless to say, I was frustrated. As an MPA, I wanted to present an award-winning Budget, but after a few months of getting my butt kicked (eh, training) by this very knowledgeable, very seasoned City Manager, I got the point. This was not the time for me to get “fancy with the spices” in preparing the City Budget.
After my first year as City Finance Director, I did go on to prepare a hybrid Program / Performance / Line-Item Budget at the City, but I had to be patient, waiting a whole year before I brought forward a new format for the preparation and presentation of the City’s spending plan for the next year.
PUBLIC SERVICE IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
Many of the improvements I worked hard for (with a lot of unpaid overtime) to implement a better City Budget document went largely un-noticed. But this is what public service is all about, right? We will always do everything in the public interest, not our self interest, even if nobody acknowledges our efforts. Our satisfaction comes from knowing we did a good job, that we held to our professional ethics, and that we did our best to follow best practices as municipal public administrators.
THE NEXT GENERATION OF BUDGET PREPARERS…
At 55 years of age, I see many of my colleagues retired and playing golf and other activities. I wish them well, but I am NOT ready to take off my tool belt yet as City Finance Director. I don’t want to (or have to) retire from CalPERS only to find myself constrained by government pension rules, limited to working only 960 hours per fiscal year (among other limitations on pension annuitants). I want to continue my calling as public servant.
Today I want to join the army of “older” Finance Directors who still enjoy preparing the City Budget. If God wills, I will spend many years to come serving my City governments as municipal finance officer and public administrator.
A new generation of Budget preparers and public administrators, the Millenials, are at the helm of our local governments now, and they will be in charge for the next 20 to 30 years. Let us help them succeed!
In 20 years, if God wills, I might be that “old” City Manager with a little wisdom to share with that first-time Finance Director who needs guidance in preparing the City Budget, and with the public interest at heart.
I just hope I lived up to the expectations of that old City Manager who taught me 23 years ago!
Rest in peace Lyle Allberg. Thank you for teaching me about public service! J
John Herrera, CPA, MPA
President / CEO & Municipal Finance Officer
MuniTemps – Municipal Staffing Solutions
Newsletter Issue: 2018 No. 2