March 29, 2011 —
The recession has knocked the stuffing out of state and local governments. Now, more than ever, public officials must vigilantly ensure that taxpayer monies are used carefully and wisely.
Most small governments employ the traditional “additive” budgeting process, which assumes that government needs to spend at least as much as in the prior year. The additive method of budgeting usually means that each line item for next year’s budget is “bumped up” a notch or two. While this process is quick and easy, it is the least efficient and most costly way to conduct business.
In a small community like Shohola, zero-based budgeting is the smartest way to safeguard taxpayer money and ensure each dollar is spent out of necessity, not availability. Unlike additive budgeting, zero-based budgeting starts from a zero base and is built dollar by dollar from the ground up. Nothing goes into the budget simply because it was in there last year. Each proposed expenditure receives the annual scrutiny of those responsible for the budget, which in Shohola, is the board of supervisors.
To successfully implement zero-based budgeting, government leaders must work with citizens to understand their priorities, which may differ from those of public officials. No budget should be passed by the board of supervisors until citizens have had the opportunity to actively review and work through the budget in a public workshop. Those implementing zero-based budgeting need a concrete roadmap, a three- to five-year plan, to ensure that township supervisors build a budget based on citizen participation, thoughtful foresight and achievable plans.
The zero-based approach starts with the assumption that your wallet is empty. The additive approach assumes that taxpayer money already lines your wallet and it is there to be spent. With a ground-up approach to budgeting, every investment of taxpayer money must pass the “wringer” test: have we squeezed everything out of the tax dollar we intend to spend?
Township supervisors are the overseers of the welfare of township citizens and the watchdogs of taxpayer funds. While additive budgeting is quick and easy, it is just not smart. Supervisors must be willing to roll up their sleeves, put in some late nights and weekends, and develop a three- to five-year plan upon which each annual budget can be built. This process does not require an outside consultant; it requires commitment and a sense of purpose.
I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.
[Brad Dellert is a candidate for supervisor in Shohola Township, PA.]