County looks at budgeting under ‘the new normal’ |

County looks at budgeting under ‘the new normal’

by Sheila Gardner

With million-dollar budget shortfalls anticipated for the next five years, Douglas County commissioners, staff and elected officials met Thursday for a look at budgeting under “the new normal.”

Consultants Jon Johnson and Chris Fabian of the Denver-based Center for Priority-Based Budgeting made separate presentations for a process designed to bring “fiscal health and wellness” to local government.

“The ‘new normal’ has hit us to the point everything that can possibly go wrong has gone wrong,” Johnson said. “It’s not that we create new stuff. We give you a different lens to look at through your organization.”

Johnson cited surveys that indicate two out of three local governments believe changes made during the recession represent a new way of doing business that will continue beyond the fiscal crisis.

Local governments are rethinking what services they provide, how much they pay for them and what taxpayers expect for their tax dollars, and states will continue to struggle to find the resources to support critical public services.

Douglas County has forecast a $2.5 million annual shortfall for the next five years.

“It’s all about keeping your budget in alignment,” Johnson said. “Make sure you’re keeping your budget within your means. Priority-based budgeting is the best practice for the future.”

The county hired the consultants for $30,000, a one-time cost for all services for the next 18 months, County Manager Steve Mokrohisky said.

The money was budgeted from one-time technology funds commissioners approved for investments in innovative technology and process improvements for the county, Mokrohisky said.

In setting priorities, officials will be asked to answer strategic questions from “how much do we have available to spend” to “what does the future look like.”

Commissioner Nancy McDermid asked about tools to measure the effectiveness of programs “before you make the hard choices.”

“That’s implicit,” Fabian said. “How do you know it’s relevant? Is it doing what it set out to do?”

“The key phrase is not ‘what do you need’,” said Commissioner Greg Lynn. “If you talk to department heads, they’ll say if they don’t get what they need, the world ends.”

“It isn’t about what each department thinks,” Johnson said. “It has to be an organization-wide perspective.”

Mokrohisky said the consultants would help facilitate public input for how the county categorizes and ranks programs.

“The results start to tell why your commission is taking public money and spending it,” Fabian said.

The Center for Priority Based Budgeting has assisted with programs in 20 local governments across the country from communities as large as San Jose, Calif., to smaller entities like Blue Ash, Ohio.

“This is a proven and standardized system that will create a consistent approach to focusing our resources on the highest value, greatest results and best alignment with our strategic priorities,” Mokrohisky said.