The budget process

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2005

City Manager Steve Herbert presented his proposed budget for the city this past week. At $312 million, it’s a whopper.

I moved to Suffolk in the summer of 2000, almost five years ago. I’m pretty sure the annual city budget then was about $198 million.


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Reporter Allison Williams provided me with a copy of it and I flipped through it for about an hour, trying to find something that would jump out at me – something to write about, criticize and generally ridicule.

Like all budgets, it’s a bland document and without sitting down one-on-one with its creators and going through line-by-line and questioning everything in it, it’s difficult to find anything that seems terribly out of sorts.

That’s what my boss does with me. We work to have an annual budget showing projected revenues and expenses prepared by the end of August for the start of our fiscal year in September..

Like the city manager and his staff, I work with department heads here to try to figure out how much classified advertising we’re going to sell, what we’re going to charge for it, how much we’re going to pay for health insurance each month, estimate newsprint consumption, delivery costs, etc.

I always schedule my vacation for August because by the time were through with this process I need it.

My boss will come to Suffolk and sit down with me for about two days and we’ll go through my document line-by-line with him questioning whether I’m sandbagging on projected revenue or whether every item of expense is necessary.

A typical exchange might go something like this:

Boss: I see you’re budgeting $600 a month for cell phones. What’s up with that?

Me: Our sales people and reporters need them when they’re out of the office.

Boss: Do you pay for their land lines, too?

Me: Of course not.

Boss: You might as well. Cell phones today are personal communications devices. Everybody has one. At my newspaper, we have three times your circulation, three times the number of employees you have, three times your gross revenue and our cell phone bill is less than $100 a month. Please justify that expense again.

Me: I’ll eliminate the cell phones.

Eventually we arrive at a final budget which contains revenue 5 to 10 percent higher than what I projected and expenses about 5 to 10 percent less. It’s my job to work the next 12 months to reach those goals.

My boss knows that as a human being, I’m likely put numbers down for him that won’t be overly difficult to achieve. That’s why we go through the process described above.

Does our city go through such a process? I don’t know, but if not, it should. As far as I can tell, what happens is the city manager and his staff work for several months to put numbers together; present it to city council members who invite the public in to comment on it and then say yea or nay, mostly yea.

The thinking, I suppose, is that the manager, finance director and department heads are the experts, that’s what we pay them for, let them do the work. The thinking is wrong.

With all the talk about the need for real estate tax cuts vs. the need for taking the city to the next level, city council needs to stage about a two or three day retreat with key managers, the finance director and department heads and put the document under the microscope.

They could ask questions like &uot;What will this fifth employee in the communications office do? We didn’t even have a communications department two years ago and were already adding staff? What would happen if we didn’t add that position? Can we get by without it?&uot; Do we really need to send three people from the planning department to the International Planning Expo in Las Vegas? Could we just send one to the regional training session in Hershey and let her share what she learns with the others?

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with the budget presented Wednesday. It may well be the most frugal budget ever prepared, I don’t know. But, that’s my point. I don’t think your city council representative knows either. Even if they study the document presented, they would not be able to make that determination because it’s too nebulous, merely listing what was spent last year, what department heads recommended and what the city manager decided to spend. It doesn’t provide a lot of detailed supporting information.

A budget should be difficult to operate within. If it’s not, what’s the point of even creating one?

If those city council members pushing for a tax cut are serious, they need to take responsibility and help identify waste, luxuries and savings, if indeed, such things exist. They’re compensated well for their part-time gig and are, after all, the bosses. They need to act like it. I’m sure it would be a great learning experience.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611 or at