Friday, February 1, 2013

PBB Fit for Washington? Montana Rep Daines Applauds City of Billings

Daines says federal government could learn from Billings' budget process

Congress could learn a lot from Montana about governing, new U.S. Rep. Steve Daines told Billings city officials Thursday.

Daines, making his first on-the-job stop in Billings since taking office Jan. 3, told Mayor Tom Hanel and city administrators that the federal government needed a Montana approach to budgeting. He praised the city’s approach to cutting costs.

“Washington desperately needs these kinds of ideas,” Daines said. “I think the priority-based budgeting approach  — something we do in business — and we’re seeing that with the city of Billings, is something I want to take back to Washington.”

Earlier in the week, Daines gave Billings a shout-out in his speech to the Montana Legislature because of Billings’ recent switch to priority-based budgeting. Struggling with costs, city departments have broken down their operations program by program, so they could rank services and find savings sometime later this year.

“One of the things priority-based budgeting does is to look at what a city is doing and to provide the programs that it is providing, 364 programs in the city of Billings, which was astounding even to me,” City Administrator Tina Volek told Daines. “We just finished in the fall the ranking, and now we are going to be moving forward to looking at programs.”

Without cuts, in five years the city might not have enough general fund revenue to cover its costs while maintaining reserve funds at an amount set by the City Council, she said.

Both federal government money and policy have played a role in maintaining city services. The city spent $9.6 million in federal grant money during fiscal year 2012, according to Billings government records. Federal grants accounted for $15.1 million in city spending in 2011.

Police Chief Rich St. John told Daines that federal money has allowed the city to keep its police force at full staff while officers serving in the National Guard are called away on duty. Federal dollars have helped fight methamphetamine crime as well as cyber crime. Billings accepted $269,000 from the federal government in 2008 to equip 70 patrol cars with digital, in-car video equipment, and to buy tactical blankets, plus an armored vehicle.

Fire Chief Paul Dextras said the Billings area desperately needs a burn building training ground for firefighters. The city used to have one but no longer does. In addition to the fire department needing such a structure, fire and hazardous-event responders at area refineries and the airport also need a place to practice.

Police and fire were only two of the city's departments to suggest a need for federal assistance, either through funding or a tax break. In the hourlong meeting, the requests were buried at the end of detailed presentations about city operations and attempts to trim costs. Volek at one point acknowledged that Congress’ approach to federal government spending was changing.

It was just three years ago that Republicans in Congress announced they would no longer seek earmarks for projects back home. Former Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg informed constituents in March 2010 that government spending was out of control and he wouldn’t be entertaining funding requests that year. One year turned into three, and while Congress found other ways to fund local projects, the means of targeting local projects through earmarks has been on the outs ever since.

Rehberg became diligent about writing federal agencies about needs back home once earmarks were banned, as did other lawmakers, because without earmarks, spending decisions were left to agencies. No one Thursday asked Daines to do anything like that.

After the meeting, Daines said the Washington discussion about federal spending needed to be about growing the economy as well as cutting spending.

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