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Yet Another Use for the Budget

Written by Stephenie Slahor

The budget is done and it is now on your desk as your operating plan for the coming year. No doubt the media has been giving attention to both the good and the bad as your municipality conducted its annual budget meetings, but how about using your department’s budget as an opportunity to tell the taxpayers and your community about the department?

The budget is far more than a collection of numbers. It is your plan for the coming year and contains financial information not only for the everyday or mundane items, but also for the special projects and services that target problems in your area. That money is supposed to help you meet the needs and concerns of your residents and visitors.

Compose a statement you can deliver to service clubs, senior organizations, school or hospital district administrators, and others. Write a news release that targets what you and your department want to say about the budget and the operating plan it reflects. Whichever one you prefer to do first will guide the way for the second.

Start with an overview of the past five or 10 years of your department and the progress that has been made during those years. Describe the cycles, events or projects that reveal trends or activities of importance in the community.

Define the services that citizens will be provided with through the new budget. If there are projects or activities that had to be diminished or cut, explain why. If they are something you want back in next year’s budget, this is your chance to do a little lobbying with your audience of taxpayers who can, in turn, pressure their representatives into action and accountability. Discuss the priorities that the budget and operating plan have set. Tell why they are important and how they result in better services for the community.

Find something new or unusual in the budget. That can be an attention-getter to describe something taxpayers might not have known about—something that gives them “more bang for the tax buck.” If you want to include data, use bar graphs or pie charts instead of columns of numbers.

What is “news” in the budget? Yes, you could focus only on the good news, but maybe you want to talk about the cuts and deficits too. Tell your story the way you want to, maintaining control of the information. Remember that your audience and any media present will be making judgments.

Target your audience. Most of what you say to groups or in your news release will be generic, but if there is a specific audience you’ll be addressing, focus more on the interests or goals of that group. If there is bad news or negatives to discuss, be open and honest. Tell your audience what can be done to improve things in the future.

Be prepared to think on your feet. Nearly every audience wants time for questions and answers, so prepare your central themes well and speak on the points you want to emphasize. If you don’t have an answer to someone’s question, admit it. Perhaps you can ask for time to explore the matter more fully, discuss it privately with the questioner, or give the questioner a referral to someone who can answer the inquiry.

If you find that a question is completely off the point, use “bridges” such as, “That’s a part of the picture, but the more central issue is…” and bring the matter back to your control and your information.

Practice your speech and, if possible, let someone hear it and ask you questions so you’ll be better prepared. An “outsider” to your information might come up with something you never thought about. Getting input from others before your presentation will help you polish your information and the way it is organized.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2010

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