Guest Column – Jeff Rader, Dist. 2 commissioner

One of the most important tasks for the Board of Commissioners (BOC) is approving the county’s annual budget. Yet, the time allocated for this task does not seem proportional to its importance.

The county Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is mandated to present a budget proposal by Dec. 15. The BOC is required to approve a budget by March 1.

With the winter holidays, that leaves about two months for the BOC to review the CEO’s budget proposal and to contemplate revisions (The BOC can add, eliminate or re-allocate the dollars, but only within the constraints of a balanced budget.). That time frame also limits the opportunities for public feedback, either at BOC meetings or designated town-hall meetings.

DeKalb County can and should do better. The budget decisions, which affect all of its citizens in their wallets, deserve more time for thoughtful deliberation and formal public input.

There is an easy way to achieve this objective. Have all departmental budget submissions available for BOC review and public dissemination.

In order to prepare the budget, the CEO asks all departments to submit their budget requests, typically at the end of August. The CEO and its staff use those submissions as the basis to decide whether to increase, decrease or maintain a department’s funding in the December budget proposal to the BOC.

In the past, those departmental requests have been out of public view, including the BOC. As a result, the commissioners lack context to understand what level of service will be provided to the public based on the CEO’s proposed budget.

If the departmental requests are publicly disseminated at the same time they are submitted to the CEO, that would create about a six-month window, rather than the current two, for budget discussion among the BOC and general pubic. While there is nothing to preclude such budget discussions at any time, the reality is that it is easier to engage people once there are numbers on paper.

The additional time would allow for more public hearings. By soliciting public input earlier in the budget process, it would give the administration and the BOC more flexibility to tweak the budget based on the feedback.

The additional time would allow for more productive dialogue between the CEO and BOC, something that is mandated by the county’s organizational act. To prepare for those meetings, the commissioners would need to reach consensus on its budget priorities, a step that has been given short shrift in previous years. The BOC has regularly scheduled retreats, which present excellent opportunities for meaningful discussion to develop its budget priorities.

Having the priorities in place can guide the BOC during its review of the departmental requests. The departmental budget review would open a channel for dialogue between the departments and the BOC, something that is missing from the current process. Establishing such dialogue would be helpful to the BOC in interpreting the numbers submitted by a department.

That dialogue also would give the department another avenue, other than the CEO, to present its case for funding. In the past, once the CEO made a decision about a department’s funding, that department lacked any recourse to present its case to the commissioners.

If a department requested funding for a new initiative that was rejected by the CEO, the backfilling of other priorities in the budget structure bury it for good. By interacting with the departments during the budget process, the BOC can get a better understanding of the level of service that can be reasonably expected from each department, relative to its proposed funding.

Even though the commissioners are part-time elected officials, they can rely on the expertise of the county administration’s budget analysts, so no additional manpower would be required. The BOC can also consult with the full-time budget analyst on its own staff.

While the CEO’s administration is well-equipped with expertise and resources to prepare the county budget, the BOC fulfills an important role in the budget process by serving as a means of checks and balances. The BOC has a legal responsibility and moral obligation on behalf of county citizens to ask tough questions and make difficult calls during the budget process.

In this economic climate of declining revenue and projected shortfalls for the county government, there is a growing burden on the county CEO and commissioners to produce a budget that represents careful consideration of the available information. Therefore, the budget process should be tweaked, as proposed here, to properly acknowledge the scope of the BOC’s role, and to enable the BOC to better perform one of its most important tasks.