Annual budget forecast for local government unit is always a balance between strong fundamental sources of revenues to facilitate its operations and the growing expenditures to address the needs of the community. Considering the demand and supply side of local budgeting is a general principle applicable worldwide. However, the vitality of it lies on the dynamics in between and the available mechanisms that vary depending on the governance of a particular local government. Ensuring the efficiency of it is not just quantitative appreciation of factors but valuing the reasons behind every numbers. Empathic thinking plays a key role in understanding the needs to be served in the budget item and the ideal impact of it in the community.
With the Professional Fellow Program, I am privileged to be assigned at the Finance Department of the City Government of Albany. The nearly four-week immersion gave me an ample time to look into the relationship of budgeting and prioritization of the community needs. The award-winning feat of the Albany City Government budgeting process and financial reporting is attributed to the concerted effort of city government’s departments, various committees and the constituents. For the past 15 years, it has been consistently getting awards on Distinguished Budget Presentation Certification of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Report and, recently, on Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Annual Financial Reporting and ICMA’s Certificate of Excellence. This speak volumes about the dynamics and available mechanisms in place to support the budgeting process.
The Budget Committee, composed of the 7 city councilors and 7 citizen members, is responsible for reviewing budget proposals and issuing ordinances and regulations relative to budgeting. One proposal for the budget committee is to approve biannual budget starting 2019 through an issuance. This also includes changes in the schedule of meetings and terms of offices for the committee members. The proposal is expected to have some cost-saving and time management benefits. The Finance Department was instructed to coordinate with other departments for their inputs on time management benefits. After the meeting, I made a clarification as to whether there is prior coordination with these departments with regard to their comments and recommendations on the matter. I believe empathic thinking is formed through open communication with the relevant stakeholders such as these departments. It is thus convenient to know that all the Directors of these departments have expressed their support on the matter initially.
Major source of revenue for the City is the property tax from the commercial and residential areas. The impact of the last economic recession had changed the income projections for property tax. Other important revenue sources are the franchise fees and interest rates from investments. It is understood that the awards received by the City on budgeting affects the credit ratings that enables favorable access to loans and other forms of borrowings. While there are stipulated provisions on budget utility of grants and donations. All of these funding sources are allocated to the government operations and community services in Albany. There is an easy access to Open Expenditures in the website of the City of Albany (http://expenditures.cityofalbany.net/#!/year/2018/) to monitor real time budget expenditures and the details of the programs that utilizes the funds. Performance monitoring is also available (https://www.cityofalbany.net/city-data/pmscorecards) to indicate whether the money utilized translates in reaching the actual target of a specific project.
It is worth mentioning that most of community services in Albany have been prioritized by the respective departments based on the needs of the community. The empathic thinking exercised through participatory governance is geared to be responsive and sustainable because it justifies the primary concerns of the community. It is a key element to bottom up approach because it involves not just thinking but feeling the needs of those who need it most. I find the Community Development Block Grant satisfies this process as it encouraged participation from different stakeholders of the community. Attending Albany Community Development Commission Public Hearing and the Homeless Summit have shown both the process of requesting fund for specific project and of monitoring how the approved fund has been helping the community.
Another notable priority that the citizen of Albany voted for is the budget for the Police and Fire Emergency Services for safety and disaster management. This brought to mind the recent news on gun violence in the US. Although the gun control debate is another and already an ongoing issue that the citizens could lobby for, the point in this context is if the citizens are aware and empowered to decide on where their money would go, then it could be an option to allocate more funds for police services that is authorized to combat this type of crime. Empathic thinking incorporated in the local development planning process is more effective in addressing emergency needs because it’s the community who experience, firsthand, unfortunate and gruesome incidents and they are the first responders to it too.