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Budget cutting process can be quick, or a long drawn-out affair

Apr 4, 2010

Our readers may have noticed we have been running a weekly series of stories on the possible (key word, ‘possible’) budget cuts to the City of Blue Earth’s 2010 budget.

There is a reason for that.

The Blue Earth City Council has been holding a weekly budget work session, going over the current budget department-by-department, and line-by-line.

They are looking at areas which could be trimmed, reduced or cut out entirely. It has become a tedious, drawn-out affair.

Because the state is going to cut back on its payments to local cities and counties, these entities must cut back on spending this year. It is difficult to cut back on a budget that is already in place and currently functioning.

In other words, it would be hard to look at this 2010 budget and say, as an example, let’s not purchase this new squad car or road grader, when in actuality that car or grader has already been purchased.

Get the idea?

Or let’s say you want to trim back on wages. Hard to do, since they are already in place, and, in some instances, salaries are involved with union contracts negotiated a year earlier.

The point here is that budget cutting – especially to a budget currently being used – is hard to do.

The way the Blue Earth Council is handling it seems to be making it even more difficult.

At each work session they pore over a departmental budget, asking many questions and trying to find ways to cut something out.

However, since these are work sessions, no decisions are made. In fact, no one seems to be making a master list of specific items which might be trimmed.

My guess is that when the work sessions are over, there will be suggestions from all of the council members of where and what they should cut.

That sounds like an argument waiting to happen. Each councilman could have thoughts of what he thinks should go, and pet projects he would like to have stay.

Contrast this with the City of Wells.

The Wells City Council simply instructed City Administrator Jeremy Germann to come up with a list of budget items to cut. He did.

Germann found $117,000 which could be trimmed, and the council voted to follow the recommendation.

Done and done.

In Blue Earth, half the year could be over by the time the council decides what to cut. By that time it will be time to start on the 2011 budget.

True, there are some benefits to the way the Blue Earth council is handling the cutting process. Each one of their council members is getting a very up close look at the budget. Each one is getting the opportunity to study the budgets of each department, and ask questions as to what each line item means. It has been very educational, in other words.

But, and this is a big but, it has so far not been conducive to actually deciding on what to cut.

My suggestion would have been to follow Wells’ example.

Instruct the city administrator – and a budget committee – to meet with the department heads and formulate a list of areas which could be cut. After all, the city administrator and department heads work with these budgets every day. They should know what they can do without, where they can cut back, and what could be postponed until the following year, or years.

The council would still have the final say, voting on the actual cuts.

Doing it the way the Blue Earth council is, seems to be a case of too much micro-managing.

Not to mention the cost of all these work sessions. Each councilman gets a meeting fee (which granted is not very much), plus other costs.

That comes out of the administration budget, under the line item of council salaries.

In case you are interested, it is budgeted for $20,000 in 2010.

Meanwhile, we will continue to try and keep our readers informed of how this process is proceeding.

And, when the final decision is made, we will let you know what specific items are actually being cut.

Although the way it is progressing, that final decision might not be coming too soon.