Public scrutiny welcome in budget process
On March 19, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors approved the county Goals and Objectives for 2002/2003. They will guide the county through the upcoming fiscal year, starting July 1, and were adopted to coincide with the beginning of our annual budget process. This event raises two questions:
1. How are these goals and objectives used?
2. How do they benefit the citizens?
We will attempt to answer both of these questions.
Every year, your county government spends millions of taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers expect they will be spent wisely and to their benefit. But how can citizens really know what services and programs are being funded by their taxes? Most tax dollars collected are spent on state and federally mandated programs and service levels. The Board of Supervisors has very little discretion over the remaining funds, and it is essential they be carefully appropriated to achieve the highest possible levels of service over a wide range of citizen needs.
Private-sector organizations have the same challenge. Monies spent wisely will move the organization forward. But what does forward mean? In the private sector, planning precedes the budget process. This typical management tool is used to establish organizational goals and specific objectives to implement those goals. Performance measurements are also included to ensure the goals and objectives are accomplished. Nevada County, over the last several years, has adopted this private sector tool and adapted it to our particular local government requirements.
Our strategic planning process was formalized in 1998 and has evolved over the past few years into a dynamic and flexible planning tool that has provided direction for the county as we work to accomplish our county vision: “We are a model of governmental excellence.”
Knowing where we are going and how to get there – “and how to tell if you have arrived” – are essential elements of good planning and good government. We serve on the committee that is now developing the 2002/03 county budget. We are again approaching this year’s budget from a conservative perspective, given the uncertainties in the state’s fiscal situation over the next two to three years. We are also emphasizing three essential principles, adopted to ensure our budget process keeps citizens informed and aware of how their taxes are being spent. The three principles are transparency, delivery of outstanding public services and accountability.
Transparency means the budget process will be open, visible and easy to access by anyone who is interested. The entire process will be publicized to the maximum extent possible through all available media sources. Budget documents will also be readily accessible to the public, both in hard copy format and online through the Internet. There will also be mechanisms for the public to ask questions concerning the budget and get meaningful answers in a timely manner.
The principle of delivery of outstanding public services addresses the relationship of the budget process to the effective delivery of county services. In other words, how does the process work, where does the money come from, and how is it spent? There also needs to be a clear understanding of the many constraints that impact the allocation of resources and an appreciation of what little discretionary appropriation authority the board really has. Our goal is to clearly communicate these relationships to the public and others directly involved in the process.
The many checks and balances included in the budget development process, as well as in the appropriation and accounting of budgeted funds, are included in the principle of accountability. All the components included in the process will be emphasized to the public to ensure their tax dollars are wisely spent. These measures include the public hearings and review process prior to board adoption of the budget; the review of the process and expenditures by independently elected officials, including the auditor-controller and the treasurer-tax collector; independent audits by state and federal agencies, as well as an annual audit by an outside auditor; and citizen oversight of board actions through the civil grand jury process.
We are using the goals and objectives approved on March 19 to support all of the three principles. The goals and objectives were developed using a “bottom-up” process, using input provided by the department heads and further developed by the board into a comprehensive county blueprint to shape our future. There are 11 specific goals and 76 objectives, including goals such as: Foster sound fiscal management; provide services to ensure the safety of our citizens; and protect and promote a healthy natural environment and create recreational opportunities for our citizens. The complete list can be found on the county Web site at:
Staff members then use the county goals and objectives to build their department work plan, along with state and federal service requirements, which in turn leads to the budget required to implement the work. The county executive’s office, an independent staff analyst, and staff from the auditor-controller’s office review the proposed budget for each department before it is presented to the budget subcommittee. The department’s previous year’s performance measurements and objectives are then reviewed, the proposed budget for next year is discussed by the subcommittee, and a funding recommendation is made for the board’s consideration during the budget hearings. As each department’s budget request is reviewed by the budget subcommittee, it is posted on the budget Web site. Additional information regarding the process is also included on this site that is accessible at:
As can be seen, each part of this process will directly address our application of the three principles stated above and support good planning through the thoughtful development and use of goals and objectives. We believe this is an unprecedented level of transparency, accountability and integration of planning with budget development and execution. For the first time, the citizens of Nevada County can literally track budget development as it is happening and see how the process directly influences the outcomes.
When the public budget adoption hearings are held in June, we hope that citizen participation will be high and everyone will be informed. Of course, we are also interested in improving the process even more. We welcome your comments and thank you for your participation.
Barbara Green is chairwoman of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. Peter Van Zant is Nevada County District I supervisor.
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