Dollars and sense at budget time

If it was just arithmetic, it’d be easy. It’s much more than that.

“City offers voluntary ‘layoffs’” was the latest budgetary headline, gracing the top of the front page of the Daily Sentinel last Thursday. “City seeks convention center operator” was another story-topping line, adding an explanation point to Grand Junction’s financial challenges.

“Slump forces county hiring freeze” was another similarly-positioned headline in mid-August over a story outlining Mesa County’s budget issues. Sunday’s front page followed. “Pressure to fund public safety” detailed the sheriff’s desire for more deputies. An accompanying story outlined the district attorney’s case for additional prosecutors.

Now the “fun” begins. On the inside, city and county staffs and elected officials are scrambling to reconcile flat or falling revenues with service demands. Outside that inner circle, we all have our favored untouchable pieces of city and county budgets and plenty of very different ideas about what constitutes “fluff”.

Certainly public safety, streets and roads, sewer and water lines and other infrastructure are all easily defined priority items. Theaters, parks, trails, convention centers, museums, amphitheaters, support for non-profit organizations or even bike races, prompt arguments over the role of governments in those areas.

It’s the local version of the “guns and butter” argument long ago framed at the national level as a distinction between funding defense versus civilian needs but now encompassing arguments over needs versus wants in government spending.

It seemed pretty simple to a group of county commissioners in the early 1990s as Mesa County still struggled with the full weight of financial issues stemming from the collapse of the oil shale industry.

Right after the bust of the early 1980s, then-commissioners commissioned a study by three prominent locals, a banker, an accountant and a well-known physician-philanthropist. Their conclusion, go back to the basics and focus on what the county was required to do as an arm of state government.

A later group of financially-stressed commissioners dusted off that study, asking their staff to define county efforts three ways…what were mandated services under the state constitution, what else the county was doing outside those mandates but still desirable or necessary, and a third tier of other efforts Mesa County was undertaking.

The first two boxes then defined budget priorities. The focus would be on guns, not butter, at least temporarily. And the proverbial feces hit the oscillating blade.

Museum supporters and fairground users were outraged. Library backers, initially suspicious, supported a voter-approved district with its own funding not subject to county allocations. Leaders of non-profits chafed over diminished county funding and questions about service duplications but, to their credit, began an effort resulting in increased coordination and efficiency.

And a couple of those commissioners lost re-election bids, yours truly included. There were other factors complicit in that, but certainly the effort to cut back on buying “butter” was a factor.

There are two lessons, back then and today. One is that both “guns” and “butter” are necessary for a community to thrive. The other that it’s also the duty of elected officials to create an atmosphere of transparency and support, an effort harder but just as vital as actual numbers-crunching.

Inject political reality into a needs discussion. Don’t squander goodwill engendered in a campaign to finance and build the Riverside Parkway with an ill-advised overreach in subsequent efforts to solve all public safety facilities needs at once. Don’t arbitrarily double a requested contribution to the Avalon project with little or no public outreach or explanation.

Spend additional time making sure taxpayers know outside private and state funding dwarfs their contribution to trails or an amphitheater while creating jobs constructing a lasting local amenity. Rather than arguing over every nickel and dime proposal couched as “economic development” that comes your way, involve constituents in creating a vision that supports developing and funding a coherent plan for long term growth.

There’s another lesson to be learned, again, as our local governments struggle with diminishing resources.

The peaks in our cyclical and changing energy economy are just that, temporary highs, not a new normal. Like neighboring Garfield County, we ought to take the money from occasional good times and either sock it away to fill subsequent valleys or, like Rifle, invest it in alternative energy infrastructure that saves money long term.

Jim Spehar’s scars from 12 years of doing city and county budgets have mostly healed. Comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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