For years, pundits and politicians have argued that government should be run like a business, tossing about terms like "zero-based and priority-based budgeting, and across-the-board cuts."
What about bringing the process down a notch, and running it like a household budget: Setting aside a certain amount for expenses which must be covered, and cutting the luxuries in lean times?
Douglas County officials are inviting the public to participate in the "budget challenge," an online program on the county's website that allows participants to try their hand at dispersing $500 among county services.
The fictional $500 is only a fraction of the county's $120 million annual budget, but the exercise will give participants a sense of what it's like to set and pay for priorities with a limited amount of money.
"Douglas County has begun an effort to refocus on long-range financial management, and reshape the budget process from across-the-board cuts to an open dialogue with residents about investing taxpayer funds in the programs and services that have the greatest value to the community," said County Manager Steve Mokrohisky.
The budget challenge allows the public to distribute $500 to the six community priorities identified through public strategic planning sessions.
They are economic vitality; managed growth and development; preservation of natural environment, resources and cultural heritage; reliable infrastructure; community safety, and financial stability.
'If the results are outside the county's strategic plans, that information will start the dialogue.
"We have Lake vs. Valley issues, north vs. south county. There are all different pockets, and people feel separated. But a lot of issues are similar. I still believe we have more in common than differences."
Participants have until 5 p.m. Dec. 3 to enter their input. To facilitate the process, the county has scheduled four workshops throughout the county so residents without Internet access - or who prefer paper - can participate.
The results will be presented to commissioners and the public at a workshop at 1 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Emergency Operations Center, 1694 County Road, Minden.
"We recognize that it is often difficult for working families and busy citizens to attend town hall forums, so we are deploying this online tool along with public workshops to allow every resident who wants to participate an opportunity to have a say in how taxpayer dollars are spent," Mokrohisky said.
The budget challenge is part of the county's implementation of priority-based budgeting for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
"We want taxpayer dollars to have the greatest value and return on investment in meeting the community's goals," Mokrohisky said.
In the past four years he said assessed property values have decreased by nearly $1 billion, and sales tax, room tax, gaming and building revenues have all declined.
The general fund - including sheriff, district attorney, judicial, community development and general services - has cut more than $4 million expenses.
That is coupled with an increase in demand for public services and state and federal mandates. Since 2008, more than 65 full-time equivalent county positions have been eliminated and others continue to be held vacant to reduce costs.
"The more we can engage our citizens in what we're doing, the more likely they are to participate and trust what we're doing," Mokrohisky said. "This is another tool in our toolbox."
COUNTY BUDGET CHALLENGE
Go to www.douglascountynv.gov, and select "Budget Challenge" on the left side of the screen. Complete the on-line registration. Registration information is secure and will not be shared with any outside party. The physical address will allow responses from geographic areas within the county to be viewed, but the county and public cannot see the names of individual participants.
Participants can choose from:
n Quick Version (estimated completion time 5 minutes), distribute your $500 among the six community results, or establish new priorities.
n Extended Version (estimated completion time 15 minutes), distribute your $500 to more detailed sub-results within each community result or establish new priorities.
Four public workshops are scheduled for residents without Internet to complete an online or paper version of the budget challenge:
n Nov. 13, 3:30-6:30 p.m., Topaz Volunteer Fire Department, 1476 Albite Drive;
n Nov. 14, 3:30-6:30 p.m., Johnson Lane Volunteer Fire Department, 1450 Stephanie Lane;
n Nov. 28, 3:30-6:30 p.m., Tahoe Transportation Center, 169 Highway 50;
n Nov. 29, 3:30-6:30 p.m., Douglas County Library, 1625 Library Lane, Minden.
n Dec. 10, 1 p.m., community workshop, Emergency Operations Center, 1694 County Road, Minden.