New approach to city budgets treats services like products
FORT COLLINS ” Two financially strapped Colorado cities are using a new budget system that turns services such as police protection into products and transforms city councils into wary customers.
“Basically, it’s survival of the fittest, at least when it comes to departments delivering everything it can at a reasonable cost,” said Fort Collins library director Brenda Carns Sutherland.
Or it’s a lesson in salesmanship and cooperation, say officials who have introduced the “Budgeting for Outcomes” approach in Fort Collins and Northglenn.
Both cities have abandoned the standard approach of budgeting, which usually focuses on regular yearly increases for services and departments.
That system emphasizes costs rather than results and often leads to across-the-board budget slashing and complaints that citizens are not being served, critics say.
The new approach ” developed by a consortium of former city managers and school superintendents ” calls for cities to link goals to funding, ensuring budgets stay stable.
A city may set a certain goal, such as a low crime rate, and then ask departments to meet that goal based on spending limits.
Departments then come back with offers on how to meet the goal ” more police foot patrols or better lighting for parks ” with hopes of winning funding.
“Basically we are focusing on outcomes,” said Darin Atteberry, Fort Collins’ city manager. “We buy those services from departments and we try to base the purchase on what citizens want.”
Faced with making $8 million in cuts in its 2006 budget and a shrinking sales tax base, Fort Collins officials figured a wholesale change in building a budget was warranted.
Helping to make the switch was the arrival of four new council members in April, including Mayor Doug Hutchinson.
Hutchinson ” a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former employee of the Department of Defense ” is a staunch proponent of the new approach.
“In government budgeting we learn to adapt to changes and this approach allows us to do that,” Hutchinson said.
Other state and local governments banking on Budgeting for Outcomes to help their fiscal outlooks include Spokane, Wash.; Multnomah County, Ore.; and the state of Washington.
In Northglenn, the team approach emphasized in Budgeting for Outcomes has allowed the city to trim 45 positions and save about $3.5 million, city officials said.
The city’s Parks Department worked with the Police Department to design safety features for parks to meet a goal of a lower crime rate, said City Manager Phil Nelson.
“We showed that not just the police can offer these safety functions and that different departments can work together to meet goals,” Nelson said.
There is some fear and anxiety among city workers as they put together budget proposals they hope will be purchased under the new system, Fort Collins officials said.
And tough decisions about potential layoffs and reduced services will still have to be made, said longtime Fort Collins resident Glen Colton.
“I hope the city doesn’t think a new tool for the day will solve everything for them,” Colton said.
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