By John R. “Bob” Wood, Alexandria
To the editor:
I am glad to see city council is attempting to better align the budget process with strategic planning.
This focus is a tacit admission that — to date — the city’s budgeting process has not been strategically focused, rationally bounded or performance-based. Residents have said this for years while watching our taxes increase, city services decline and the city bureaucracy expand.
It is past time to examine why we are spiraling into a steady state of escalating debt and ever-rising taxes. We must look hard at fiscal realities in the world rather than the assumed reality that best accommodates our planning assumptions. There’s a big difference between budgeting and financial planning.
The truism that financial planning is much harder than budgeting aside, I’d point out two key differences.
First, budgeting is a satisfying science of choosing where to spend money while reallocating shortages so that you end with a mathematically balanced solution. Successful financial planning depends much more on a discrete and continuous review of your key assumptions and an unbiased examination of external physical, economic and political conditions.
The second difference is that financial planning forces you to look at your fiscal health over time and as planned or unexpected costs occur. We know that deferred costs for storm sewers, environmental remediation, city personnel and capital replacement loom in our future.
When do we address them, and how do these costs impact our future? Financial planning demands we think about spending in time, place and purpose instead of simply meeting current obligations, balancing accounts and keeping faraway lenders happy.
It’s the nearby voters who need to be happy. We need to see and understand the assumptions underlying City Hall’s financial planning. Frankly, we need to understand how this city council votes in support or against the priorities embodied in these assumptions.
Do you seek or oppose a reduction in borrowing? Do you choose to oppose or support growth where revenue returns continue to disappoint? Do you avoid or confront realities that challenge city staff’s assumptions?
We will see success in financial planning when our city government’s budgeting process results in fiscally responsible adjustments of our spending in time, place and purpose instead of devolving to an add-and-delete session focused on less than 1 percent of the budget. We need a full-throated debate on strategic priorities and planning assumptions earlier in the process instead of settling for the easy out of higher taxes and increased borrowing.