Budgeting that meets the need, not the greed

By Dan Pressburg

Although many people have called for a “zero-base budget” where everything is looked at and everything is accounted for based on the need and benefit, our city plods along with the traditional budget where revenues do not seem to arrive as forecasted and cuts are never deep enough to reform government in favor of the taxpayer who pockets the bill.
We (the city of Long Beach) will continue to forecast for the next several years with growing budget deficits and cuts that remove service and place public safety on the chopping block regardless of the community need. Again the taxpayer is left holding the bag and paying with very little say. The budget is a difficult document that conveniently leaves out actual cuts by departments, often leaving positions as budgeted for while our representatives claim policy requires them to make cuts when positions are not needed or filled. As the noose tightens, those activities will become less and less and we will be forced to contract out rather than keeping a qualified workforce. Contracts up to $100,000 will be plentiful and easily placed into position with the single stroke of the city manager’s pen. This again can be claimed as expedient rather than the policy makers (city council) making these decisions.
The example of receiving a memo outlining that crime is down and therefore our new chief is forced to keep things at a status quo, even though we will have lost almost 80 police officers by the next budget cycle, is not only disrespectful to the taxpayer but unresponsive to need. The idea behind a zero base reverses traditional incremental departmental budgeting (similar to reverse engineering) to a product based upon the need.
Traditional budgeting only requires that department heads justify increases over the previous year’s budget; whether or not it meets a need at a lesser level is questionable. The incremental budget grows gradually based upon the previous year and can only increase or decrease and fails to take into account changing circumstances. It also forecasts out and speculates certain revenues as being constant without again taking into account the circumstances. Finally, this method encourages departments to spend up to budget without review of why the dollars were originally allocated in order to justify next year’s increases with a “spend it or lose it” mentality to ensure adequate allocation. Therefore, there is no incentive for change or developing new ideas.

The contrast to this is that in a zero-base/zero-sum process each department’s function is reviewed comprehensively and all increases must be approved rather than only increases. This means every dollar of income or revenues is adjusted downward, no reference is made to the previous year’s expenditure. Every departmental function is reviewed in detail. Zero base is indifferent to whether the total budget is increasing or decreasing. It forces cost centers to identify their mission and eliminates wasteful and obsolete spending by defining its goals and encourages staff motivation by allowing them greater initiative and responsibility in decision-making. Finally, a zero-base budget eliminates wasteful and obsolete operations and also detects inflated budgets. Traditional budgets encourage just the opposite.

Dan Pressburg recently withdrew from the race for 9th District City Council because of health problems.

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