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Budgets can communicate more than dollars and cents

Your city budget is more than just a spreadsheet that includes a compilation of numbers that illustrate how much money your council plans to spend in a particular year. Ideally, your city budget should be a mirror image of the vision and priorities council sets for the city. Being able to articulate your city's vision and how it ties to spending public dollars is a critical part of establishing an open and transparent government.

So before passing your budget and using it as just a financial document, think about these tips for making your budget a living document that can help your council better communicate the city's vision to residents.

  1. Align your strategic planning process with your budget cycle. Make sure your council's strategic planning process timeline overlays with your budgeting process. Put them on the same calendar cycle so that you are doing your annual strategic planning before the budget process.
  2. Develop an outline of talking points that councilmembers and staff can use when discussing the budget with residents. Create a narrative to illustrate to residents how dollars spent tie to priorities in the city's strategic plan. Every councilmember can use this outline and adapt it when speaking to various types of groups. For example, if building a new fire station is a priority, use a graph to illustrate the cost per resident for any millage increase and use a narrative to describe the benefit residents would receive from the new station.
  3. Use your city's annual Consolidated Annual Financial Report, or CAFR, as a vehicle to show residents that city funds are being spent wisely. Pare down the information in your city's CAFR with simple and colorful charts and graphics that illustrate the high-level overview of how the city's dollars are spent. Use these graphs and charts on your city website, in publications and presentations.
  4. For larger cities that use generally accepted accounting principles, submit your CAFR to the Government Finance Officers Association to be considered for a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting Program
  5. Smaller cities that prepare their financial reports on a modified cash basis can apply to GFOA for its Certificate of Conformance Program. This recently introduced recognition is designed for the thousands of small governments for which financial reporting in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles is not a viable option.

To learn more about the budgeting process, local officials can participate in the Association's budgeting class that is one of the core courses for the Municipal Elected Officials Institute. The next class will be held on March 20.