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How and why to read your city budget

Jeff Victor
An example city budget breakdown.

In Laramie, the city government approves its own budget every two years. That budget details all the money it takes in, like taxes or utility fees, and all the money it spends, like building roads or having a fire department. City and town budgets look different from community to community, but there are some elements common to all of them. Wyoming Public Radio’s Jeff Victor spoke with City Manager Janine Jordan and Administrative Services Director Jenn Wade about why citizens should pay attention to their city’s budget process, and how those same citizens can get involved and make their voices heard.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Jeff Victor: Why should people pay attention to the budget that their community is putting together?

Janine Jordan: What I would offer is that most of the time budgets are not really about the numbers — certainly they're about the numbers and how taxpayer monies are spent — but encapsulated within those numbers are the priorities of your elected officials. There's the allocations to support the services that you expect and rely on, like clean water and sewage treatment and the police coming when you make a phone call to 911, and someone picking up the phone, helping to get you help. So those budgets encapsulate the policies and the services that you expect locally — and whether they're adequately resourced or not.

Victor: Obviously this isn't going to be the same for every community across Wyoming, but, as a city manager, with so many moving parts in so many different areas, how do you pull that together into one document? How does that process work?

Jordan: Our process of developing the budget is very complex and involves pretty much every department of the city and the leadership of the city in its totality. So I rely on, for instance, my police chief or my administrator services director, to assist with that process of meeting my obligations to the city council — which is to prepare and recommend the budget to them every year.

Victor: I know you can only really speak for Laramie, but in a place like Laramie, with a city manager form of government, with the way that you put the budget together, how can I, as a citizen, go about finding that budget and interpreting it?

Jordan: For my profession as a city manager, it's one of our core ethics that we will ensure financial transparency — and that means financial transparency to the public. So that they can easily understand where, how and when their taxpayer monies are being spent, and what return on that investment they are receiving as far as value in their lives. So we publish our budget book online. We have for decades and decades. It's a very searchable document and we strive every year to make it better and to make it easier to understand. And a lot of time is spent in the opening sections of the budget actually creating more simple charts and graphs to help the reader see the big picture of the budget more readily, so that they don't have to go pour over the numbers and do the accounting and figure out where the money went. So we try to make it as easy to understand as possible for just the layperson.

Victor: It is still a lot of numbers. So how do we go about interpreting that, or what should people be looking for, as they dig into this document that can be 100-200 pages?

Jordan: I think the first thing you should look for is those broad interpretive graphs and diagrams. I think those tell a story that, if you dive into the actual line item budget and you look at individual expenses, you won’t see. It shows you, at a high level, how much of your taxpayer money is being spent on policing, how much of this pie chart is being spent on fire or emergency medical services or for public works. Jenn, do you want to add anything?

Jenn Wade: I feel like there is an art to using budget publications. In addition to what Janine has offered, I would also say that developing an understanding of the government's funds would be really essential. And when I say fund, I mean the distinct financial accounting entities that that government has. So in the city's case, the general fund, the water fund, the wastewater fund, etc. Because those funds are how the government will appropriate resources. So at the highest level, pay attention to those funds as a roadmap for how funding is being allocated. And then from there, dive into the details of each fund to find out more information. In particular, the revenue sources for that fund — you'll find a lot of variability across general funds — and the highest level of expenditures for that funding. So how is the government allocating resources at the highest level — personnel expenses, capital expenses? Those types of questions can orient users of these documents much more quickly than trying to read 300 pages of text.

Victor: This will definitely vary from community to community based on what that specific budgeting process looks like. But at least in a place like Laramie, where we are now, I’ve looked up the budget, I’ve interpreted some of the numbers, and I want to share my opinion on it. How do I get involved at that point?

Jordan: I love that question because we present the budget recommendation to our city council in a series of public meetings that typically occur in the spring due to statutory requirements. It's very rare that we have members of the public there to comment on the budget. But that's the first thing I would say: show up for a budget work session. It might sound dry but it's actually I think a really informative experience based on the people I know who have attended, and a great way to learn a lot about the priorities of your local government.

The other thing I would assure the public is that when the budget recommendation is put together, it's based already on public input that's typically occurred prior in the year or over a couple of years. How that occurs is, in Laramie, our city council will adopt goals for each year in the beginning of the calendar year, in January, and those goals inform the recommendations that I put together for the city council. So if they have a policy priority to explore, for example, increasing access of citizens to broadband utility and infrastructure, there will likely be some corresponding recommended allocation of funds to support that effort. And they arrive at those goals by speaking with their constituents, by understanding the needs of the community and by airing those goals out in a public setting as well — long before the budget is put together.

Victor: Is there anything else that people should know about a community's budget or the budgeting process?

Wade: In particular, in Laramie, I do think it's a true statement that we are absolutely committed to transparency in our budgeting processes. And so we really want people using the information we publish. We want them attending work sessions and we want them providing feedback on how easy our materials are to use, because we want incremental improvement in those areas.

Jordan: … or how not easy. If they find an area where they think that, ‘Geez, this is really hard to find and to dig through all these pages,’ that feedback can be really instrumental because we do strive, as Jennifer said, every year to make that budget document easier for anybody to figure out and understand.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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