My father used to say, “Someday, you will deal with budgets.” His career with Illinois Bell Telephone Co. spanned more than four decades, beginning out of high school as a messenger and culminating as a supervising engineer.
When I was a young academic, others took care of funding. When I became a college professor, I eventually supervised a small operations budget for my two-member department and larger specific allocations for my research grants. Still, my father’s prediction scarcely seemed relevant.
Has that ever changed! In “retirement,” I have an approval role for the annual budget for the city of Durango (see: http://bit.ly/2rD9HHh), which includes about $80 million for operations and tens of millions more for capital improvements.
My intent in this column is to explain how the city prepares and approves these very large commitments of taxpayer dollars, including opportunities for public input.
The 2018 budget process began on May 24 and 25 at the annual city council retreat, the one opportunity we have for extended discussion of goals. Councilors identified five priority areas for attention. Alphabetically, they are: climate change/sustainability, community character, economic resilience, housing/transportation and infrastructure/facilities.
On July 5, the council will have a special study session to integrate these priorities into our goals document (See: http://bit.ly/2tP9pOa). The city manager then will solicit corresponding budget requests from the directors of the 12 city departments and programs.
Most departments, such as police, operate on unrestricted revenues, primarily from the city’s basic 2 percent sales tax. Such revenues go into the general fund, which supports most day-to-day city functions.
One line in the general fund budget is “community support,” which in 2017 received about $1 million. Organizations interested in applying for this funding should attend an informational workshop at 10 a.m. July 21 at city hall before submitting a formal application by Aug. 10.
Some departments also benefit from access to restricted funds, which receive revenue that the city can spend only for the purposes specified in ballot language approved by referendum. For example, part of the 2005 half-cent sales tax supports the Open Space, Parks, and Trails Fund, for which the Parks and Recreation and Natural Lands Preservation Advisory Boards prioritize expenditures each year for recommendation to the city council. The existence of restricted funds leads to the seemingly paradoxical ability of the city to undertake certain types of projects while other needs go unmet, particularly during years of tight budgets.
Still other departments, e.g., utilities, operate somewhat like businesses. The corresponding enterprise funds depend on user fees calculated to meet the cost of services provided, without long-term profit or loss. Residents likely are familiar with the steep increase in sewer rates imposed to repay the $62 million borrowed for construction of the Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility.
The first chance for direct public input into the budget comes at 6 p.m. July 27 at city hall, when the city manager will conduct a budget workshop for interested residents. This event precedes the manager’s difficult decisions to balance allocations proposed by departments to meet council goals with estimates of available revenues. Although suggestions made at this time have a much better chance of implementation than those that come near the end of the process, few people attend. At the Sept. 19 regular city council meeting, the city manager will present his recommendations to the council and the community. To meet his mandate to produce a balanced budget, he likely will have trimmed department requests by a total exceeding $1 million.
During late September and October, city council will have a series of study sessions and an all-day budget retreat to review the manager’s funding proposals.
The Nov. 7 regular council meeting will include a formal hearing where the public can comment on the proposed allocations before the council reconciles suggested changes with available funds. Finally, in December, the council will vote on the budget ordinance and associated actions.
The budget process unfolds over a period exceeding six months. It includes two meetings that specifically invite public input, the July 27 workshop and the Nov. 7 hearing. In addition, residents always can contact councilors at CityCouncil@DurangoGov.org or address the council during “Public Participation” at our regular meetings.
In practice, because the manager’s budget proposal has already carefully balanced competing needs, changes made by the city council usually amount to no more than plus or minus $100,000. The important input that shapes the manager’s recommendations comes early in the process. Therefore, I urge interested residents to attend the July 27 budget workshop.
Dick White is the mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of city council. He was re-elected in 2015 and will serve as mayor until April 2018, when he will be succeeded by now-Mayor Pro Tem Sweetie Marbury. Reach him at DickWhite@DurangoGov.org.