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Budget: Getting the Most From City's Fiscal Plan

August 11, 1994

The most important task in the annual cycle of government work is the creation of the next year's budget. A budget is more than just numbers, projected revenues and expenditures. It represents the hopes and dreams of a community, the opportunities, protections and quality of life of its citizens.

For the past decade, Long Beach's city manager and City Council have presided over a steep decline in opportunity and quality of life without having made any philosophical or structural changes.

Lately, the choices put to citizens have been higher taxes, less services, or as in this year's budget, a combination of both. It is a choice from among negatives, and is therefore unacceptable as a matter of ongoing public policy.

Can we do better? You bet. Progressive cities across the country have had successful experience with introducing business techniques to the public sector. The idea is not, as Ross Perot said, to "run government like a business," but rather to make government more entrepreneurial.

Not only can the city's budget process benefit from new private-sector thinking, but we taxpayers would get a far bigger public service bang for every budgeted buck. A budget is nothing if not informative and a planning tool.

To be informative, a separate report should be generated to reveal not only how many dollars were spent, but whether the money was well spent. Costs should be broken down per capita, or based on an activity base, and then compared with data of other cities with similar populations.

The main purpose of a budget is to be used as a planning tool. Multiyear spreading of anticipated revenues and expenses is therefore essential. Council members would suddenly find that they have something in their laps that is readable and on which intelligent decisions can be based, instead of the current document, which might as well be written in Latin.

Presumably, city department heads would welcome performance-based feedback too. After all, if you don't measure results, how can you tell success from failure?


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