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Council outlines new process for departmental budget talks

By LAURA FREEMAN Reporter Published: March 5, 2017 12:00 AM

HUDSON -- City departments will bring changes to personnel or capital expenses to Council before budget talks begin in the fall.

The Feb. 28 Council workshop focused on a budget calendar and the review process for the budget.

In the past, the five-year budget and annual budget were reviewed in the fall by Finance Director Jeff Knoblauch who read the operating budget and capital purchase details in the general budget and other department budgets to Council, who could ask questions or make changes before the final budget was voted on before the end of the year.

"I hated Jeff going line by line," said Council member William Wooldredge. "If we go through the (budget review) process for individual departments, two a month, then at the time of the budget (in the fall), we feel pretty good about it (without a detail review)."

City Manager Jane Howington said Council members said they missed the interaction with the department heads during the budget review, but it is time consuming for the department to make a presentation for Council.

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"I miss the opportunity to talk to department heads," said Council member Dan Williams. "They could come at least once a year to talk."

Council member Dennis Hanink agreed but opted for a more focused and relaxed conversation with departments. He suggested an hour devoted to a presentation in each workshop.

"I want to see what drives the expenses in the department and the capital expenses in the department," Hanink said.

Council President Hal DeSaussure said department heads wouldn't know what they needed in their budgets in the early part of the year.

"We have to wait until the department heads know what they need," DeSaussure said. "I want a meaningful way to approach the budget. Don't make the staff do a dog and pony show."

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DeSaussure said departments with little change can be reviewed during the budget talks in the fall.

Most department's personnel numbers, operating expenses and capital needs remain the same from year to year, said City Manager Jane Howington.

"There's not a lot of new stuff," Howington said. "Just an understanding of what we're doing and new ideas as they come forward."

Hanink said if the department information is given to Council members before they discuss the department's budget at a Council meeting, they can prepare questions on new ideas or changes in the department.

The staff can highlight challenges and opportunities, Howington said.

"I don't need to get into the minutiae," said Council member Casey Weinstein. "What are the major changes and outlays? I'm interested in that."

Council member Beth Bigham wanted to focus on the outcome of the budget.

"What is the benefit we're providing for our community?" Bigham said. "I want to get the output with the minimal dollars."

DeSaussure said meetings with departments should be limited to those with a lot of capital or have personnel changes. He said citizens determine if money is being spent where it's needed through complaints or the ballot box.

"We buy what we need but not more than we need," DeSauusure said.

Council member Alex Kelemen said the budget was something Council provided input for.

"It's the expression of the strategic plan the voters give us," Kelemen said.

The departments tell them about changes that affect them and their budget, he said.

"I don't think there's any harm in more discussion," Kelemen said. "We talk with the experts and come up with ideas."

Council members did not want a "deep dive" or detail reports from the departments and suggested Council members contact Howington about what they wanted to know so the departments could provide answers at the meetings.

Departments can look at their five-year budgets and know if something is coming up that needs discussion, Hanink said.

"The question is, has something arisen to change it?" Hanink said. "What dynamics have changed their budget?"

Howington said that in major department meetings with Council, they could talk about challenges and opportunities that could impact the budget.

A department would meet at the beginning of a Council or workshop meeting but information would be shared with Council ahead of time, and Council members would provide questions before the meeting so departments could provide answers.

The budget process for the five-year plan and annual budget would be in September and October at four workshops with the budget voted on in November.

Email: lfreeman@recordpub.com


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