When I think of a budget, I think of a bunch of numbers that either do or don't add up. Each of those numbers has a value, meaning they correspond to a "magnitude; quantity; number represented by a figure, symbol, or the like" (dictionary.com). Budget numbers are represented by this symbol $$$.
But as the Tompkins County Legislature moves into budget season, I'm coming to understand the phrase a government's budget is a statement of its values. A budget is a bunch of $$$ indeed, but it's not the symbols that matter. It's what underlies them that defines the principles, the "the quality (positive or negative) that renders something desirable" (vocabulary.com), the values that we want to live by.
But we start with the numbers. Over the past few months, Tompkins County Administrator, Jason Molino and his staff spent much time talking with the 45+ departments and agencies in the County about what they need to keep their operations going, and what they need or want to enhance their department. The result of this work was a presentation to last Tuesday to the Legislature of the draft 2019 budget.
What we're working with is, (to borrow from the County's press release) "total expenditures of $186.5 million (an increase of 2.57%) and local dollar spending of $89.9 million (an increase of 2.05%). The budget is balanced with a 1.43% increase in the County property tax levy, which is less than the Legislature’s 2.2% levy goal, and well below the County’s tax cap."
Scroll down all those lists of numbers and you'll see that the bottom line for the property owner is an increase on their tax bill of about $15 (for the median assessed property of $185,000).
Last year at this time, I was sitting in the audience of the Legislature with my knitting, watching the Legislators with their giant budget books filled with page after page of numbers, trying to decipher the process. This year, I get to participate every step of the way (and still intend to bring my knitting).
Thursday evening, we had our first Expanded Budget Committee Meeting, which equaled three hours of presentations by some of the department and agency heads. They each took a turn explaining their budget and the extras they are asking for - called Over Target Requests (OTRs). We heard from the County Clerk, The History Center, Transportation Planning, the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District, Board of Elections, Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR), Animal Control/SPCA, the County Historian, and the Legislative Clerk. Each was followed by a chance for Legislators to ask questions.
For the next month, we'll meet six times to listen to such presentations and weigh the importance of each department and each OTR. We'll look at their quantitative value along with their qualitative value. Eventually, in October, we'll move to voting meetings, where any Legislator can move to add an OTR or other amendment to the budget. If the item gets eight votes, the majority, it will be added to the full budget. Then, when all that is done, we'll need to get eight votes on the entire budget to make it official for 2019.
I ran into a neighbor and constituent the other day at the grocery store and mentioned budget season. When I told him we're working with $186 million, he reminded me that "That's a huge responsibility!" Indeed, and not something I take lightly.
From the past eight months of work on the Legislature, I have an understanding of what each department does, but listening to each presentation, I got a better sense of who each department is, what population they serve, and what their values are. And it's that last one that is most important. The budget process won't be simple, but when I hear the numbers, the principles, the positive qualities that align with my own, raising my hand to vote for those values will be easy.