Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Investing in Priorities Led to Budget Innovation in Nevada

Douglas County, Nevada has been one of the most successful implementers, and now practitioners, of Priority Based Budgeting. In fact, they were the first county in the nation to implement Priority Based Budgeting. Douglas County has also implemented a game-changing approach to citizen engagement. In 2012, the County embarked on the Priority Based Budgeting process with one of the primary objectives being to bring their community into an ownership position with respect to decision making. What unfolded in their groundbreaking use of an online tool to engage citizens sets the bar at a whole new level in participatory budgeting (see story here). Not only that, but the County's bond rating was affirmed as a result of their work. 

Another example of the County's success is how they prioritized spending to fund long-awaited transportation infrastructure needs with their shift to Priority Based Budgeting. See Douglas County newsletter article "Priority Budgeting Leads to $1 Million for Roads." Based on their progressive series of successes, the County was asked to present a case study at CPBB's "Summit of Leading Practices" conference held in July 2013. See the full Douglas County, NV slide presentation here.  

Former Douglas County Manager Steve Mokrohisky has been integral to the success of the County he served. Through his leadership, Douglas County continues to innovate and prioritize spending to the benefit of the citizens of the community. Steve is frequently called upon by his peers to outline how Douglas County has achieved Fiscal Health and the County was recently awarded a prestigious Good Governance Award.

This time, Steve wrote How Investing in Priorities Led to Budget Innovation in Nevada for the current issue of Public Sector Digest. This article (full article below) focuses on the success, challenges and process of implementing priority based budgeting in Douglas County, NV.

Thank you Steve for your amazing work leading Douglas County, NV to fiscal health! We have high confidence you'll achieve similar success in your new leadership role in Lane County, Oregon.

How Investing in Priorities Led to Budget Innovation in Nevada

The recent economic downturn and slow recovery, combined with spiraling salary and benefits costs for the last several years have forced local governments to make tough decisions to balance budgets. As a result of the uncertain financial picture, many local governments find themselves stuck in an annual budget process that either perpetuates the status quo or vacillates from one new process to another each year. Douglas County, Nevada, a quality organization and community nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains found itself in both camps.  
After years of across the board budget cuts to programs, as well as regular attempts to implement the budget trend of the moment, the organization began a concerted effort to implement a consistent budget process that sought to invest limited taxpayer resources in the areas of highest value to the community.

In 2011, Douglas County implemented Priority Based Budgeting (PBB) as an objective and credible process for scoring and evaluating programs, building public trust, and creating buy-in from all stakeholders in a complex county government environment. The thoughtful and innovative practice was developed by the Center for Priority Based Budgeting (CPBB) and has been adopted by the International City/County Management Association and Alliance for Innovation as a leading practice for local government.


Successful implementation of PBB required the strong and consistent support of policy makers, internal staff and the community. All three groups had to support the new process to truly create transformative change in the organization. The County worked with CPBB to facilitate discussions with policy makers and staff to define the priorities and community results that were desired. The results became the basis for criteria to score specific programs that the County provides. 


Gaining trust and credibility with elected officials and the public regarding a new budget process was difficult, but key to the success of the new initiative. The County had to manage stakeholder perceptions that the new initiative was intended to make significant cuts to programs. The County worked to address these concerns and demonstrate that PBB is a thoughtful process to make responsible improvements and investments in programs that support community results. In addition, the County sought to achieve broad and active participation by residents to ensure the end product was representative of the community's priorities.


As a result of its use of PBB, Douglas County's policy makers and residents identified preventative road maintenance as a high priority with critical funding needs, and annual funding was increased from $300,000 to $3,000,000 in Fiscal Year 2014-15. This successful shift of existing revenue from the general fund was achieved after 20 years of debate and did not require a tax increase or major cuts in services. In addition, new patrols were added to the Sheriff's Office, and additional prosecution and public defender services were added without significant increases to the General Fund, but rather through thoughtful prioritization of programs within the affected departments.

Several departments identified, recommended, and successfully eliminated lower priority programs, as well as reorganized their operations to shift resources from lower priority to higher priority programs, improve customer service and increase efficiency.

Finally, utilizing PBB has demonstrated a commitment to excellence and long-term financial stability. In 2014, Standard and Poor's upgraded Douglas County's underlying bond rating by two notches to "AA", the highest rating in the County's history and the first upgrade in 10 years. The County highlighted its PBB efforts during the bond rating agency review process. Also, Douglas County won the Nevada Taxpayers Association prestigious Good Governance Award and was selected to present a case study on PBB at the national Transforming Local Government conference in 2014.

PBB has brought a new perspective and understanding of the budget process to elected officials, staff, and the public. The process allows policy makers to focus on results as opposed to focusing on line items within the budget. Departments are now empowered to take ownership of critical funding decisions, rather than face pressure from others. The public is now part of the decision process in a meaningful way. PBB has helped manage the new normal, and as revenues stabilize the process can help manage requests for new spending to ensure they support high priority programs.

For Douglas County, Priority Based Budgeting has provided an innovative and consistent process to evaluate programs, improve services, and ensure value to taxpayers. The process has proved to provide a great way to build trust and credibility with all stakeholders involved in the budget process.

Center for Priority Based Budgeting


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