Councilor Susan O’Leary: Follow The Money

Los Alamos County Councilor

Late last month, the County Council, County staff, and members of the public spent about 16 hours examining and approving the County’s 2016 budget. 

I learned some important things about the process that I’d like to share with you. Please remember, these are my views as an individual councilor and they don’t necessarily reflect the views of the other councilors.

First, I want to compliment the talented and dedicated professionals on the County staff. They’ve significantly cut operating expenses over the past five years to address a 29 perceent decline in the Gross Receipts Tax revenues that the County relies on for most of its funding; and they’ve done a great job of minimizing the impact to citizen services in managing those cuts. They’ve achieved this by decreasing county staff by more than 20 positions through attrition since 2014 and by cutting other operating costs and delaying projects.  The Staff’s dedication to meeting the service needs of our community is noteworthy.

When I was running for the Council, I campaigned with a goal of improving the alignment between strategic goals, citizen needs, and resource allocation. The budget process is really the place where those decisions fall.

After participating in this year’s budget process, I deeply appreciate the professional approach taken by the County to manage the budget, and I believe we made some good progress this year in linking goals to spending. But coming from the private sector with a lot of professional budgeting experience and a fresh set of eyes, I can also see several opportunities to improve the budgeting process going forward, so that we can do even better in aligning spending decisions with strategic objectives.

First, we have to take a hard look at costs. One way to do this is to look at whether the programs and initiatives we’ve been spending on for years are still tightly linked to today’s priorities. That’s really about considering whether we’re doing the right things. We also have an opportunity to validate current performance standards for county services. That’s about whether we’re doing the right things right. What standards should we use to evaluate the quality of our roads; how much should our community invest in public safety efforts; what should operating goals be for our utilities; how many hours should our libraries and recreation facilities be open? The reality is that the bulk of county expenses relate to those kinds of services; necessary to live comfortably in the community, key quality of life amenities, or required by state or federal law – these services have significant impact on our cost structure. 

In order to meaningfully address the cost side of our financial situation, we have to ask ourselves hard questions about what makes sense for today’s needs and tomorrow’s aspirations. Our county government faces pressure from uncertain revenue streams while strong community interest in adding county services like the nature center and the new teen center will increase operating costs. This is a good time to revisit assumptions, some made decades ago, about the trade-offs between activities, performance standards and cost implications. Understanding how other communities make these trade-offs is critical to this process.

This is a conversation that should be led by the Council, with full participation of County staff, and with significant public involvement. Having been through one budget cycle, I’m pretty well convinced that the job that needs to be done can’t be accomplished in 16 hours of meetings, up against the pressure of looming budget deadlines.

In my experience, the budget process is a negotiation between owners and managers that establishes performance goals for the coming year. It’s not just about the amount to be spent. The budget needs to more fully incorporate goal setting and management objectives. It should include meaningful performance metrics as well as opportunities for innovation, efficiency, and improved quality. We have a very accomplished group of senior managers overseeing county operations. Including a more performance-focused approach in next year’s budget process will give them an opportunity to explore and share their vision for how we can improve going forward. 

Increasing public involvement in the annual budgeting process has to be a priority. I was disappointed at the lack of public involvement in this year’s budget process. The Council needs to purposefully create mechanisms that increase public involvement in budgeting. It will take time to determine the right mechanisms for our citizens, and add time to the budget process, but it will be time well spent.

As a final point, creating more connection between the County’s strategic goals and the budget approval process will not only help us produce a more rational budget, it will help us support consistent decision making throughout the year.  

Earlier this year, I asked the Council to take action to improve communication between the Council and the community. Specifically, I asked that the Council’s communication with citizens focus more on strategic goals and on the spending and actions we’re taking to achieve those goals. I’m working to keep that focus on the Council’s front burner in the coming months, well ahead of next year’s budget process. We can easily make progress by better defining the specific objectives of each strategic goal; and by benchmarking and considering performance based budgeting approaches being used by other government and for-profit organizations. 

I’m sure that other Councilors and members of the public will have other good ideas for improving the budget process.  For me, the most important thing is that we make some progress; and I hope that we can firm up our plans this summer, to give the County staff plenty of time to adjust next year.

I have the sense that the whole Council and the whole community want to see the County deliver better value for the money we’re spending. I expect we’ll have some disagreement about how to get there, but it should be pretty clear to everyone that taking the opportunity to improve our budgeting approach so that our decisions better connect goals, outcomes, and impacts is worth the effort. I’m hopeful that if we devote some time and energy to this opportunity this summer we can deliver real results for the County in future budget cycles.

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