Friday, December 14, 2012

County explores new means to prepare budgets

The county's code enforcement office wasn't doing very well. It had lost both of its officers, and the county was under pressure to enforce a variety of rules.

But one of the rules it wasn't under any pressure to enforce was the home occupation permit. The cost of the permits wasn't covering the cost of the program. There wasn't any controversy dealing with home businesses in the county.

So, according to County Manager Steve Mokrohisky, Community Development Director Mimi Moss and her staff decided to ask commissioners to delete the requirement, allowing the code enforcement officer to pursue a far more profitable task.

“That's something they did on their own,” he said.

But it also serves as an example of how priority based budgeting works.

Priority based budgeting doesn't necessarily pit emergency services against the library. It drills down to actual programs offered by the county, 702 to be exact, ranks them based on scores, and allows commissioners to determine their relative merit.

Once ranked, the programs are placed in four areas based on their scores and the level of priority.

County residents got a chance to contribute to determining the rankings in the online county budget challenge, which received 86 responses total.

Mokrohisky said that while he would have preferred hundreds of responses, in contrast, commissioners had about six residents turn out for budget hearings over the course of a couple of years.

A quarter of residents favored improving infrastructure and a fifth sought a safe community. Preserving natural environment, resources and cultural heritage was a priority for 17 percent, followed by economic vitality, financial stability and managed growth and development.

“You want a good level of response,” said Jon Johnson, cofounder of the Center for Priority Based Budgeting. “You got a great response.”

Using the system, the commissioners can spend their time drilling down to the lowest priority programs and determine whether they're actually needed, or if they are other examples of the home occupation permit.

Johnson showed commissioners how they could look at the budget priorities in different ways, such as level of mandates, reliance on the county to provide the service and level of demand.

In the case of federal or state mandates, Johnson pointed out that while there may be a requirement, it doesn't mean the county couldn't look at it and see if they are doing more than is mandated by federal or state government.

All the budgeting work so far is based on budget information the county has now. The Nevada Legislature meets starting in February, and at its last session it tried to raid local funds to balance its budget.

The county must have its tentative budget completed in April and the final budget prepared in May under state law.

Mokrohisky said the county has been working with the Center for Priority Based Budgeting over the past year to implement this program.

More than 30 cities across the country have implemented this budgeting process, but Douglas County is the first county in the country to do use the online budget tool.

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