Our Opinion: Mixed bag of proposed changes to budget process

News Tribune editorial

Jefferson City budget discussions this year produced not only a document, but possible changes to the process.

The City Council was scheduled to act on a proposed $31 million budget Monday night.

But the series of budget meetings that ended recently also yielded proposed changes from both City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus and a number of council members.

Budgeting in lean times — similar to what city officials recently experienced — are more likely to cause frustration and, consequently, prompt calls for change. In contrast, when governments are flush with revenues, budgeting typically is more simple and more satisfying.

The standard procedure of trimming budgetary fat is among the frustrations voiced by Nickolaus.

“The stuff that’s in the budget,” he said, “is the product of 100 years of councils working on the budget, and every council every year goes through and looks for fat to trim. After 150 years, there’s just not much fat left.”

As an alternative, Nickolaus favors decision packages — which is government-speak for focusing on value and cost of city services, rather than on departments and employees.

We believe this change is worth a try, if for no other reason than it requires elected officials to examine existing programs on the basis of merit and cost.

We also favor a suggestion to update the council regularly on budgetary matters. The concept of quarterly reports was advanced by Shawn Schulte, 2nd Ward council member and finance committee chairman.

We agree that providing more information on a more regular basis empowers council members to make sound decisions not only at budget time, but throughout the year.

We are less supportive of Nickolaus’ complaint that the council engaged “in a level of micro-management that the council has never done before.”

We concur with the concept that council members are elected to set policy, not micro-manage departments, but the council is empowered and obligated by the City Charter to review and approve the city budget.

We believe council members are authorized and should be encouraged to be as meticulous as possible in fulfilling that obligation.

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