“The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.”
~ Jack Lew, former Sec. of the Treasury
Peachtree City is going through its annual budget process. Some citizens are already up in arms about potential changes. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that we live in such an aware county. However, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the City Council and City Manager, as well as other local officials. I’ve been through this process many times as a two-term County Commissioner elsewhere, as well as head of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia local taxation committee. Plus, I did senior level budget analysis for both the state of Georgia and a large corporation.
First, taxpayers need to understand one basic rule about local government in Georgia. We are not DC.; there must be a balanced budget, period. The bottom line is that revenues and taxes must equate. And, that means that everyone does not immediately see their wishes fulfilled.
Back in the 1970s under Gov. Jimmy Carter, the state operated under “zero base” budgeting. Not only were new funding/improvement requests analyzed, each department was asked to justify the level of funding for existing programs (i.e. can reductions be made). Although idealistic, I still think that this is the way governmental budgets should be analyzed at all levels.
Priorities should be ranked according to set criteria. In an ideal world, this would essentially give us cost versus benefit for each budgetary program and optimize the impact of governmental spending. In a more pragmatic world, politics interfere. Let me give you just one example.
When I began my first term as Commission Chairman of a rural county, one of my priorities was getting roads repaired and paved. One area of the county was made up of newcomers, either retired or commuting to Atlanta. The rest of the county was composed of the older inhabitants. Roads were much worse in the newcomer area, although it represented a disproportional amount of taxes collected. Therefore, more roads needed to be paved/repaired in that area versus the area with the original county inhabitants.
There was not enough funding to do all the roads, so the County Manager (a civil engineer) drew up a plan based on an evaluation of need (number of cars/school buses using a road, road condition, etc.). This Comprehensive Road Paving and Maintenance Plan specified the order in which each road would be repaired or paved county-wide.
A fiscally conservative political neophyte who had been supported by the ultra-right-wing Tea Party type organization in the county, I thought that this plan would be well received by the County Commission and taxpayers. And, it did pass the Commission on a 3-2 vote.
Naively, I thought the conservative Tea Party group would also support the Plan. But its membership came from the rural areas. That group constantly pressured Commissioners and was able to delay any implementation of the plan by blocking funding each time a vote was taken.
Here’s the bottom line for Fayette County residents. If you call yourself a fiscal conservative, you believe in a balanced budget. More importantly, if you call yourself a good person, you will care more about the needs of society as a whole versus yourself.
Said another way, local taxpayers should attempt to take an objective look at proposed governmental expenditures. How much do they cost and how many of us are benefited and how?