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“THE” BUDGET

Written by Stephenie Slahor

Springtime means flowers and birds, but in many municipalities, it also means budget planning. That word—“budget”—tends to equate to sheets of columns of numbers, strange words and abbreviations from the world of finance, and daunting dismay. But the budget process does not have to be that way. Here are some ways to improve your skills in budget planning.

Be an Expert

Your tasks in police finance are a work in progress. You learn from successes but also from the mistakes you or others have made. Keep a notebook or computer journal of your experiences, both good and bad. Include notes about where you found help, Web sites that answered your questions, the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of people you contacted who knew what they were talking about, and ideas you want to explore further.

Enroll in finance courses or continuing education workshops at your local community college or university, or take in-person or online courses with organizations of which you are a member. Web surf for the course or webinar you need.

Go Inside the Process

Sure, budget season involves sometimes boring meetings and a lot of phone calls and e-mails, but the process leads to more than just creating a budget. The budget is actually your operating plan to produce the realities you want the department to achieve during the next year or so.

The budget process is, indeed, a political one. You will quickly learn who is on your side to help and who holds other values that clash with your department. You will also learn who will favor which expenditures on what items—and how you can bargain among the players to get what your department needs.

Others May Not Be Experts

You have to stand up for what you want so that your department can achieve its goals. Explain what you need, why it is needed and how the money correlates to department goals and citizen service. Look for what is NOT in the budget and make sure those omissions are unneeded in your plan. If they are needed, see if they are being omitted for political reasons.

Be an advocate for what you want and educate the other budget participants so you get more people on your side. Not everyone speaks “police” so explain and reinforce what you espouse. Keep your words simple and easy to understand. While words such as “revenue” and “expenditure” sound good, sometimes the simpler words (“income” and “spending”) have a better impact with your listeners.

Keep the Budget on Your Desk

The budget serves as your guide throughout the year. It is, in reality, your operating plan. When an action or expenditure is proposed, see if it conforms to that operating plan and budget. Refer to the budget whenever someone comes up with a request. Does that request conform to the plan?

Requests mean there will be winners and losers—all depending on the budget and the operating plan it reflects. Then, be sure to add to your personal journal any information that develops in the budget year that impedes your department’s progress. Those gaps in the budget may be where you need to fight for more funds in the next budget year.

Open Your Perspective

When you are a participant in the budget process, you tend to focus only on your department. But go beyond that to other documents your municipality produces. Its Annual Report will tell, what has been going on, what citizens’ concerns are and what progress or failure has occurred.

Audited Financial Statements will reveal deficits, problems and pending litigation discovered by the auditors, along with recommendations for solving the difficulties. See if those recommendations have been acted upon or why they were ignored. Statements about new bonds your municipality wants to float will reveal information about demographic and financial conditions in your municipality and why it needs to seek investors to finance a capital project.

Credit reports from such sources as Moody’s or Standard and Poor will help you learn about your municipality’s overall financial condition. Analyze municipal and police budgets from past years and look for trends. Adjust for inflation by using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index formulae for comparing spending from, for example, 10 years ago, to today’s dollar.

Learn all you can about what makes your municipality run successfully and what does not, and what everyone’s political values are. That knowledge will increase your capacity to develop your department’s budget not only this year, but in the years to come.

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

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2010

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