Yearly budgets weigh on the minds of government officials as budget season heats up during the summer months.
Mike Skidmore, Ottawa mayor, does not take that responsibility lightly. Skidmore, who has been a local bank executive for many years, said taking care of people’s money is something he does on a daily basis.
“I have to make sure it is invested and spent properly [at the bank],” Skidmore said. “At City Hall, it is the same principal. The budget is one of the more critical things we work on each year. Making sure it is accurate and done properly. It is a necessary thing we have to go through and be prudent. We have to be careful with every dollar we spend. I do carry that responsibility.”
Randy Renoud, county commission chair, said county commissioners understand how the budget effects taxes and how it might place a burden on taxpayers.
“All of us are taxpayers,” he said. “We have friends that are on fixed incomes. We are very mindful of what the impact and tax burden will be on the people in the county. I know the health department has given us statistics on the poverty level, particularly among the older people. When you start raising taxes, they don’t have a way to make more money. It is going to hurt them. There is not a commissioner up there that is not aware of that when we make a decision — it is going to help somebody here and there, but how is it going to hurt somebody. You have to weigh that.”
Compiling a budget involves a complicated set of numbers and formulas. Scott Bird, Ottawa’s finance director, said the city looks 18 months into the future when dissecting the numbers.
“There is a lot of moving parts when you consider the number of budgeted funds that we have,” he said. “Starting in March and April we get real serious about putting the budget together. We try to get it done early in August. We anticipate the budget hearing will be Aug. 1. It is a pretty good process to get there. We have to use [the information] we know at year-to-date. Some of that information is being updated as we go through this process.”
Derek Brown, county administrator/counselor, said by the time August rolls around, county officials will have combed through the budget top-to-bottom at least six times.
“We challenge every member of our leadership team to go through their budget line-by-line,” Brown said. “We constantly are trying to find savings. The constant struggle is balancing the quality of our services with the efficiency of the tax services. I believe in providing a very high quality service, but at the same time we are doing our best to not raise property taxes. That is where really digging in and making sure you are spending wisely in every area. It absolutely critical to do that.”
The process getting to the final budget is a lengthy one. Bird said he starts working on preliminary city budget items at the first of each year.
“It is a dynamic process,” Bird said. “It goes down to the supervisory level. The supervisors are talking to their crews about where do you see their needs. It involves a large number of employees weighing in.”
Brown said the county starts working in depth on its upcoming budget in March.
“It takes time,” he said. “That is why we start the process pretty early. We try to give ourselves plenty of time to do our due diligence.”
Brown said it is a collaborative process between him, Janet Paddock, the county finance officer, each department head and elected official and the commissioners.
“We are right in the middle of that,” Brown said. “The first steps are Janet and I will sit down and go over every department’s budget and the general county budget, then we will schedule a series of meetings with each department head and elected officials. That is when the department heads have opportunities to discuss any requested changes they might have to their budget. Once we are through that, Janet and I will sit down again, which is literally where we are at now, as we try to get a basic understanding of the overall budget and what it looks like with all the requested changes.”
Brown, Paddock and each department head or elected official plan to meet with commissioners June 14-15 to discuss their individual budgets.
Renoud said the process works to make sure every dollar is scrutinized.
“We are doing the best we can for the county and try to take care of everybody,” he said. “Nobody wants to cut services. All of us face decisions that may be unpopular.”
Skidmore said the city commissioners are faced with hard choices when it comes to the budget.
“We do have that balancing act of providing the services that people have come to want and expect in town,” he said. “There is a fine line [there]. It is a challenge sometimes. We have an ultimate responsibility to make sure we are getting the most bang for the buck.”