Friday, February 29, 2008

About Budgets

In 2003, during my first six months after having just been elected to the County Council, the County was facing a budget shortfall not unlike what we are facing this year. I was still learning about all of the departments, and programs that the County administered for its residents and so it was difficult to get a good handle on the magnitude of the problem. Then County Executive, Doug Duncan, submitted his budget as required in March, and the Council went through all of the budget hearings and committee worksessions. As a new councilmember, I was looking for the "rules" and the "right numbers" (revenue projections and actual expenditures) that would clearly identify the problem as well as some of the potential solutions. Well, things came to a head as the "numbers" continued to show a gap that had to be closed in order for the Council to pass a balanced budget.

The Saturday before the budget needed to be passed, everyone was scrambling and I was attending a friend's wedding and talking on the phone in the vestibule of the church with then Council President, Mike Subin, and the leaders of unions as they discussed a four month delay in their employee's COLAs (cost of living increases). This, in addition to a series of program reductions and tax increases, helped bring everything together and a budget was passed that next week. About a month later, the County received the next income tax distribution from the State, which was higher than anticipated, and it turned out that the "right numbers" weren't that right at all -- and a lot of the issues that we were scrambling to fix in the closing minutes of the budget didn't necessarily need to be as contentious as they were.

I write this because there has been a lot of discussion about the budget difficulties that we will face this year. Make no mistake about it -- this will be a difficult budget year. I wanted to share my reflections from 2003 because it very clearly pointed out to me that there are many variables that need to be taken into account and that a search for the "right numbers" may not be as successful as some would hope. There are no "rules" that exist to be followed except broad guidance in the County Charter, and some policy guidelines that have evolved over time. Addressing this year's budget issues will require everyone (taxpayers, employees, stakeholders, elected officials, and many others) talking to each other and working together to get to a sustainable budget outcome. The quest for perfect information is elusive. The best we will ever be able to achieve is a snapshot in time. If we all recognize that we are working together and sharing whatever information is available to achieve the best possible outcome, then I have no doubt we will be successful on behalf of our residents

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