Monday, June 30, 2014

How Longmont, CO City Council Strategically Utilizes Priority Based Budgeting

In a recent post, the Center for Priority Based Budgeting highlighted the fantastic work the City of Longmont, Colorado has performed as they implement priority based budgeting in their community (Longmont, CO City Council Steps into Priority Based Budgeting). During this City Council session, Chris Fabian, Jon Johnson and Kathy Novak, along with City of Longmont Mayor and senior leadership, discussed the principles of priority based budgeting to kickstart Longmont's efforts.

As CPBB Senior Adviser Kathy Novak explained, "priority based budgeting is a process and a set of tools that can really help communities and elected officials change the way they talk about making financial decisions and how they achieve the results that the community is really looking for."

Sandra Seader, City of Longmont Assistant City Manager, added "today we are talking about priority based budgeting and what that really is is taking a look at our entire budget and start to prioritize what things are the most important to our residents, things we really need to make sure we are focusing on, and things we continue to do well as time continues to move forward."

See the full 3-minute video here Longmont City Council Reviewing Priority Based Budgeting.

Now in their second year of implementing priority based budgeting, the City of Longmont
recently held a City Council retreat where CPBB delivered
the PBB Resource Allocation Model. Along with Council and senior staff, a reporter from the Longmont Times-Call was also in attendance. See Scott Rochat's article Longmont City Council asks for cuts in 2015 budget below.

Longmont's budget razor is getting sharpened. 

At a Friday retreat in Lyons, the Longmont City Council asked for cuts to the 2015 budget to help close a $2.5 million gap in the general fund. That fund has usually been balanced with the help of one-time money, dollars that were left over from the previous year. 

The council's been working on a "reset" of the general fund since 2012, when the gap was over $3 million. This year, it has a little extra help. Every city program has been scored for use in a "priority based budgeting" system, with each score based on how well the program supports the city's goals.

The scores also account for details such as whether a program is mandated, how well it covers its costs, how many people it affects and whether someone else is already providing the service. That gave council members a chance to drill down, as they asked finance director Jim Golden to identify possible targets from the lowest priorities. 

"Let's look at the stuff that's not mandated, the stuff that very few people use, the stuff where there's duplication and cut as many of those as possible," Councilman Brian Bagley said. "But steer away from the ones that would be politically charged."

The tool for doing this is a spreadsheet created by the Center for Priority Based Budgeting in Lakewood. City staff hope to eventually make it publicly available, but the information is still being double-checked — the finance staff only received the latest version Friday morning — and the program itself is proprietary, meaning the city would have to negotiate with the company before it could be released for general use.

Councilwoman Sarah Levison said she hoped that could be soon.

"We need to have people as informed as we are, or at least have the ability to be, so we don't sound like we're talking down to them," she said.

Priority-based budgeting requires a city to decide what it wants, so that it can have a better idea of how to get there. In this case, Longmont officials set five goals which the community helped weigh by dividing an imaginary $1,000 between the categories of:

• A safe community
• A reliable, innovative and resilient infrastructure
• A thriving economic climate
• Vibrant amenities and opportunities for all
• Responsible internal operations and governance

The final result — based partly on the $1,000 exercise and partly on scores from city staff — pushes everything the city does into four "quartiles." An activity that fits the goals well goes into quartiles one or two; one that has less to do with them goes into quartiles three or four instead.

It's a long list. Longmont has 737 ongoing citywide programs totalling a little over $183 million, according to consultants Chris Fabian and Jon Johnson of the CPBB. And the list gets even longer since some of those programs come out of multiple city funds, making for a total of 1,286 entries.
Even so, Johnson noted, it makes for a simpler process because it gives a straight answer to the most basic question: "What are you spending my money on?"

"Think about it," he said. "We (normally) hand you a 600 pound book with all the budget data and say 'Lead us.' It's hard to sift through all that. This doesn't replace that budget book — but it does supplement it."

Of that $183 million, about $162.5 million is spent on services offered to the community while $20.7 million is spent on governance. That's about 11 percent for the machinery of government, which Johnson said was pretty low. 

"I've seen many communities that get perilously close to 20 percent," he said. "The lowest we've seen is 10 percent, so you're in a really good place."

No specific items were set aside to be cut or saved Friday. (That waits until the draft budget is presented this fall.) And even a fourth-quartile program isn't automatically a cut, the consultants said — but it is one that's a low enough priority that the city should at least discuss why it's being funded.
Councilwoman Polly Christensen urged care, saying that even a program with a small number of beneficiaries could have big ripple effects. 

"We have about 100 homeless people," she said as an example. "But if we cut a program for them, it doesn't just affect those 100. It affects the whole community."

In recent budgets, the City Council explicitly put layoffs off limits. This time, the message to Golden was softer but still clear — don't lay anybody off just to save money. 

"I think companies and organizations that do layoffs are unwise," Bagley said. "If you've got the right person, you don't let them go." 

An outline of the city's budget prioritization process can be found online at

The draft 2015 budget must be presented to the City Council by Sept. 1; the council then has until Oct. 1 to hold a public hearing and until Dec. 15 to adopt the budget. 

We at the CPBB couldn’t be more pleased than to be part of the City’s evolution of the PBB process. Congratulations Longmont, Colorado!

Center for Priority Based Budgeting


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