Summit County looks to revamp budget process, create community advisory group
Summit County is considering changes to its budgeting process this year in order to better educate and communicate with the general public during the effort.
Officials held a high-level discussion on budgeting during the Summit Board of County Commissioners work session Tuesday morning, hoping to come up with ways to more effectively engage the community in the budgeting process and work with departments internally to streamline expenses. To that end, the county is in the process of setting up a Community Budget Advisory Group, meant to help staff and elected officials determine what funding areas are priorities for the public and how things could be more efficient.
“This is certainly an exercise in education and communication and transparency,” Commissioner Tamara Pogue said. “We don’t want to lose that. But it is also an opportunity for smart thinkers. Sometimes we all get in our own boxes. Just because we’ve done things the way we’ve always done them (doesn’t mean) it’s the way we should always do them. I think we’re looking for some folks who can help us say, thoughtfully, ‘Have you contemplated this or this or that?’”
The budgeting process at the county is an extensive one, according to Finance Director Marty Ferris. Discussions around budgeting priorities begin with the county commissioners as early as April, followed by meetings with county department leaders and other elected officials throughout the summer to take in their financial requests for the following year. Staff in the county manager and finance department then provide a recommended budget in October, which is subject to several public hearings before its annual adoption in December.
This year, the yet-to-form budget advisory group will provide another set of eyes.
County Manager Scott Vargo said the group would likely be composed of between eight and 10 community members who would meet during the height of the budgeting season from May to August to provide feedback. Who will serve on the committee is still unclear, but officials voiced a desire to bring in individuals who understand the county’s complicated budgeting process and could help communicate the ins and outs to the rest of the community.
“I know there’s obviously a public process,” Commissioner Josh Blanchard said. “… And what we have seen is that there has not been a whole lot of participation in that. … I think that there’s been an increased interest because of COVID — people saying we need to be investing more in things like housing or things like mental health. The question comes back to, ’Is there money, where does the money come from, and what are we taking it out of to prioritize it in a different pool,’ so to speak?”
Commissioners are also interested in what efficiencies departments might have developed during the pandemic that could provide opportunities for continued savings.
The board voiced that they’d like to see more internal interaction between departments during the process. Instead of each department building its proposed budget in a “silo,” officials urged the divisions to determine where they could work together. For example, in lieu of hiring new employees, officials suggested merging seasonal positions in the winter and summer into year-round posts and allowing some administrative workers with the county to serve as “floaters” who work at different departments throughout the year depending on need.
“I think there’s also a tension when you ask departments to think about themselves in this silo, versus asking them to participate in some of the bigger decisions,” Pogue said. “I don’t know if there’s some way you all have identified to try and create that sort of cross-silo thinking, but I suspect there are some efficiencies that could be identified if we could create that.”
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