Council to revamp budgeting process

The city council is considering an ambitious new process for budgeting, intended to better align spending with citizen priorities by bringing both the public and the council into the process at an earlier stage.

A draft ordinance, to be presented for first reading at tonight’s council meeting, lays out a 20-step process, including at least four formal opportunities for public comment.

“The budget is supposed to reflect the council’s goals and objectives,” council Chair Michael Pollock said, “but that has not always happened in the past because the council has not come up with its goals until after the budget has been prepared.”

The ordinance lays out the budget steps and the order in which they must occur, then requires the council to pass a resolution each year assigning dates for each of those steps. The dates can be amended, but the sequence cannot be changed nor can any step be omitted.

The first step, tentatively scheduled for May, is a public hearing on council goals and objectives, based on a draft “mission statement.” After further suggestions from individual members, the council would adopt a formal statement of “the vision, mission, goals and objectives of the city for the ensuing year,” which would be done by late June of this year.

City departments would then prepare their tentative budgets aimed at accomplishing the council goals and objectives, and the finance director would make a preliminary estimate of available revenue.

The mayor would combine those two, and present a “proposed preliminary budget” by the end of August – essentially a “wish list” that would incorporate departmental requests but would not have to balance.

Meanwhile, a council committee would begin working on the capital facilities plan – the listing and prioritizing of major spending projects for the next six years.

During September, a series of council workshops and public hearings would be held on individual department budgets, leading to formal submission of the mayor’s budget and budget message by October 1.

The final budget would evolve out of a final revenue projection, additional public hearings on both spending and revenue, submission of proposed amendments by the mayor and council and adoption of a tax rate.

For years 2003 and beyond, department heads must develop and submit performance measures – means by which their group’s function can be compared from year to year.

The ordinance, based on a structure adopted in Lynnwood, requires the council to set a budget schedule by the end of January in 2003 and thereafter. This year, the schedule would be set in April, assuming the ordinance is adopted.

Pollock said he has not seen the ordinance, but characterized it as “ambitious.”

“A plan with that many steps sounds like a lot,” he said. “I think this will be kicked around a bit before it’s adopted.”

Finance committee member Lois Curtis said the proposal is intended “to get more citizen input into the budget process” and to force the council to give itself enough time.

“If we don’t give ourselves deadlines, it doesn’t get done,” she said. “This forces us to meet our schedule and recognize when we’re falling behind.”

Former mayor Dwight Sutton said budgets in the past have intended to reflect council priorities, but that the process has been more informal.

“The city administrator and I would review the goals and objectives that the council adopted, and use that as a framework to prepare the budget,” he said.

When the forecast revenue wasn’t enough to accomplish all of the council goals – the usual situation – Sutton said the staff and administration would come up with suggested trims, frequently after informal conversation with council members. And the citizens would only become formally involved after a balanced budget was presented, usually in November.

“We tried to make the budget conform to public sentiment,” he said.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy agrees that because the budget represents the “work plan” for the year, it should reflect council policies. But she questions whether locking in the timing is feasible.

“Saying they want a preliminary budget by the end of August isn’t easy,” she said. “It might be better if we went through the process once before doing this.”

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