Part 1. What is a Budget? (Part 1 of a 2- part series)
On April 20, the County Council will begin their dialogue and discussions about the proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 16 budget. My fellow councilor Susan O’ Leary is spearheading a discussion on additional ways to communicate with the public. With this theme in mind, I would like to use this first column to “set the stage” for these upcoming budget hearings by giving our citizens some background about the budget process and responsibilities.
It takes several months to develop and adopt a budget. The process begins late winter. The Council holds discussions in their regular sessions with the County Manager to talk about strategic goals, short term and long-term financial policies, expected or emerging trends on a state or national level that may impact the County, along with forecasted revenues and expenses. The result of those discussions is adopted by Council as a “budget guidance” document.
Using that guideline, the County departments begin working on their new FY budgets. They concentrate on finding ways to meet the County’s goals, while providing operating funds and services for existing items. Sometimes, that means they may examine plans to maintain, reduce, enhance or delete some services across divisions or County-wide. They present their budgets and give suggestions to the County Manager in early February.
By the end of that month, the County Manager has met with every Department Director and reviewed their submittals. Over the next few weeks, the County Manager works closely with the Finance department to weigh the various requests, consider options and make final decisions for a comprehensive, balanced budget. He will constantly check the budget against the Council’s guidance to see if goals can be achieved, and if not, are there other alternatives to be considered or options to explore. The end result is the publication of the budget to the taxpayers on March 31.
At this point, the responsibility for the budget transfers to the Council. Councilors review the document and may follow up with the County Manager or Department Directors if they have questions. This is the opportunity for the citizens to review the proposed budget and give the Council comments or feedback too. The County has a biennial (two year) budget process, and FY16 is considered an “update” year.
A “Citizens’ Guide to the Budget” is also published on March 31, available on the County’s webpage at http://www.losalamosnm.us/omb/Pages/BudgetsandReports.aspx and copies are available in a variety of locations to review. The citizens’ guide lists the highlights of the budget in just a few summary pages and so many people find it easier to read than poring over the entire budget document. Comments may be sent to individual Councilors, staff, or the general County Council email address at email@example.com.
It’s important to note that the budget does not always include new projects as part of the discussions during budget hearings, although that is one of the areas of greatest interest to most residents. While there might be a placeholder in the budget, last year the Council decided to separate that discussion from budget hearings. This will be the case again this year. The County Manager has proposed keeping a fund balance for future projects, but has suggested taking time in FY16 to finish a variety of new projects in progress or recently completed before tackling new projects.
A new budget is typically adopted in early May, and takes effect July 1. Performance measures are included in the budget, and this year the Council will be expanding on those measures and discussing other kinds of measures and reporting mechanisms that might be useful to them and allow the citizens to gain a better understanding of how their taxpayer dollars are being spent.
This is just a very brief overview of the budget process. You’re welcome and encouraged to attend budget hearings and give Council your feedback. Meetings will be April 20, 21, 27 and 28 at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers.
Watch for my second column next week, when I will provide highlights from this year’s proposed budget, and how those changes might impact the County as we move ahead into FY16.