Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Christmas in July, budget style

'Tis the season for local government agencies to submit their budget requests. In most places, agencies act as if it were Christmas, submitting a long wish list with hopes of many big, shiny gifts under the tree. These hopes are dashed when it is explained that times are tough and only a few presents can be given. So it goes in the City of Milwaukee, where agencies' requests, if granted, would increase the tax levy by 22% next year but Mayor Barrett has enunciated a goal of no more than a 3% increase.

In contrast, the County executive asks agencies in Milwaukee County to act as if the Grinch himself were budget director, submitting requests for less than was spent the previous year and recommending drastic cuts to services. But, like most of us, they also know that in the end, the Grinch is reformed (with a little help from the County Board) and Christmas is saved...and many of those drastic cuts will be reversed before the final budget is passed.

But there is one way in which neither the City nor the County leaders act like Santa Claus...they never check their list, much less twice, to see who's been bad or good. Goals of performance-based budgeting have been abandoned or are merely given lip service. The budget documents, the main source of policy for both the City and County, routinely fail to tie strategic goals to measurable outcomes so as to prioritize resources. Why don't they? Because performance-based budgeting, while good policy, is difficult to do. It can be difficult to accurately project expected outcomes or set realistic goals, but it is even more difficult politically...which is why, for example, we've seen the Police Department budget swell despite missing goals for establishing a crime tracking data system.

If programs that aren't successful are rewarded with sugarplums instead of lumps of coal, and vice versa, policymakers cannot expect taxpayers to continue to believe.

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