Local government budget basics in the age of COVID-19

Get 3 tips on completing fiscal year 2021 local government budgets, and managing resource requests during the coronavirus pandemic

It’s still possible for local governments to build trust, demonstrate operational effectiveness and provide services to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic by incorporating performance measurement within their annual budgets, according to Michael Walters Young, budget and strategic innovation manager for city of Franklin, Tennessee.

At the National Research Center, Inc (NRC)-hosted Forward Together online leadership conference, Walters Young addressed budget basics along with tips for completing local government budgets during the COVID-19 pandemic in "Show Me the Money: Building (and Sustaining) Better Budgets Through Performance Measurement" breakout session.

What is a Budget?

Michael Walters Young, budget and strategic innovation manager for city of Franklin, Tennessee, offered local government budget strategies during COVID-19.
Michael Walters Young, budget and strategic innovation manager for city of Franklin, Tennessee, offered local government budget strategies during COVID-19.

What is a budget? It’s a reflection of an organization’s values, and the most important public policy document a government creates on an annual basis, said Walters Young, who also spearheads the statewide performance measurement collaborative, Benchmarking Alliance of Tennessee, and regularly delivers this presentation.

“Where you get your money, and how you spend your money, reflects directly upon who you are and what you want to be…It really encapsulates everything that we are and want to be for that 12-month period,” he said.

A government budget should be a:

  • Policy document
  • Financial plan
  • Operations guide
  • Communications device

However, a good local government budget, said Walters Young, includes the following:

  • Mission statement
  • Goals (short-term objectives and long-term strategic initiatives)
  • Narrative of accomplishments
  • Performance measures
  • Staffing history
  • Departmental organization chart
  • Financial numbers

Walters Young focused his advicee and strategies on budget mission statements, goals and performance measures — in light of the pandemic.

3 Tips for Completing the budget during COVID-19

What is a budget during this incredibly challenging and difficult time? 

Most communities will not have a larger fiscal budget than the one they started 2020 with, Walters Young said, but that does not mean that the budget shouldn't still be an operations guide, policy document and communications device for how we are going to build and sustain our communities, Walters Young said.

“Use your budget to reinforce your government’s coronavirus response,” he said, citing the following three key actions.

#1 Go back to your mission statement

A government’s mission statement can show citizens that this pandemic is a time “you have to marshal through,” he said. Using Somerville, Massachusetts, as an example of a robust mission statement that can be easily built on for the current crisis — municipal freedom brings national strength — the statement is vital during COVID-19.

Any transmittal letter, or mayoral address, needs to go back to the key themes to what the city has laid out, advised Walters Young. A mission statement says who the community is and even in the midst of the current crisis — the timeless values they stand for.

#2 Set goals for the next fiscal year and beyond

Working with all governing bodies is critical to goal setting. 

Wherever possible, always be sure to tie your budget request to the strategic goals of the body you are asking money from,” Walters Young said. “Sit down and really think about that.”

City of Franklin sets up goals in three tiers:

  1. Pre-approved strategic long-term initiatives
  2. Strategic long-term initiatives that have a financial component
  3. Specific fiscal year goals

Delineating these objectives can make it easier to find what financial resources are needed to achieve goals, versus which goals don’t require significant financial resources to achieve.

#3 Use your data to build performance measures

Use data — city data — to justify and rationalize decision-making, said Walters Young.

Most departments already have performance measures they are collecting, even if they don’t realize it. Financial staff can start collecting what is being tracked by other departments — the data is more vital today than it ever has been, he said.

“Simple facts can be challenged because they are facts,” but local government budget makers can use this data to act, and that is important during reopening — a time of many concerns and questions about government resources.

“This is data that you have…You can be able to show it, you can be able to demonstrate it, you can be able to prove it.” That means the budget is not just action on feelings, or the “whim of the moment.”

While data is important, "you got to have data in context,” he said. When collecting data from local government departments, you must be able to centralize, normalize and standardize data across all of the departments.

Beginning in 2014, city of Franklin required all departments have performance measures in their respective budget documents, in a standardized fashion. The following year, all departments were required to tie budget requests to Franklin Forward, the city’s 20-year strategic plan focusing on four key themes with 15 sub-themes and 64 goals.

In 2016, Franklin launched it’s open data platform as "data in context" and also launched a data analytics team with IT & Finance departments to see connections from data sets.

Communicating budget requests during COVID-19

Walters Young said before the pandemic, it was easy to advise budget makers on not being afraid to ask for more resources, if they can be shown to be spent wisely. As you build your budgets, pandemic resources must be requested, he said.

“You need to be as clear and as concise with your budget requests and your asks at this time, more so than you really ever have before,” he said.

Watch the video:

The event sponsors included Polco/NRC, ICMA, NLC, ELGL, Alliance for Innovation, Tennessee City Management Association, GFOA and the Iowa City/County Management Association.

Next: Budgeting Best Practices

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