Using the County Budget to Connect With Constituents
“By offering sound information and improving the general understanding of the workings of the county, we strengthen the public’s trust in government, and I am glad to be a part of this process. As we work to meet each year’s challenges, I encourage you to be active in your county’s government, stay informed, learn the issues, and visit with your county officials. People and government working together is the key to efficient county operation and to our future successes.” Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy’s Closing Statement, 2021 Budget Message
Defining the County Budget
Legal document…approved expenditures…statement of revenue…expenses and fund balances
While these clinical descriptions of the county budget are indeed accurate, the budget document embodies much more to Commissioners Courts and the constituents they serve. For example, consider the following defining phrases used in a training session on the county budget:
- A plan of action for the fiscal year
- A policy statement by the Commissioners Court
- A vision statement for the County
In Polk County, the budget is viewed as a vital education and communication device.
“Polk County’s mission statement and goals, along with each year’s budget priorities, are included in our annual publication,” shared Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy. “We feel the most important purpose of the budget, however, is to serve as a communication device – laying out the financial plan and major policies for managing revenues and expenses of individual departments, while conveying the information in a manner easily understood by those not necessarily familiar with county government.”
Launching the Budget Process
Those with a penchant for understanding the Polk County budget development from start to finish are welcome to attend the Commissioners Court’s open meeting discussion of the budget, where Murphy relies on the input of County Commissioners along with other officials and department heads.
“The Court’s open meeting discussion of budget development affords the public a better understanding of the considerations and trends driving the annual budget,” Murphy stated. “Transparency throughout the budget process allows for a better public understanding of the issues facing local government.”
The public is also privy to the county’s budget calendar, which guides the budget process from May through October.
“We have found that distribution of the calendar at the start of each year’s budget process not only helps our office stay on schedule and meet all of the statutory requirements of the process, but also aids county departments in their planning process and gives the public a clear picture of each step toward adopting the budget and setting a tax rate,” Murphy explained.
In fact, developing a budget calendar is one of the criteria required in the Distinguished Budget Presentation Awards Program of the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA).
Yearly Budget Award
The GFOA has presented a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award to Polk County each year since the county’s first submittal of its annual budget to the awards program for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 1999. In order to receive this award, a governmental unit must publish a document that meets program criteria as a policy document, as an operations guide, as a financial plan, and as a communication device. This award is valid for one year only.
Polk County has also achieved the Gold Circle Level of the Texas Comptroller Leadership Circle program, which recognizes local governments across Texas that are striving to meet a high standard for financial transparency online. The program rewards those local governments that go beyond the basics of posting three recommended documents – the Budget, the Annual Financial Report (or Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), and the Check Register. The program also spotlights local governments that are opening their books to the public, providing clear, consistent pictures of spending, and sharing information in a user-friendly format that lets taxpayers easily drill down for more information. Leadership Circle designees receive a certificate reflecting a Circle Award level: Gold, Silver, or Bronze. The Gold Level is awarded to entities that are setting the bar with their transparency efforts, and Polk County has ranked in the top five counties in the state for their achievements in this area.
The county’s website, www.co.polk.tx.us, includes a menu tab for “Financial Transparency,” where the county’s financial information may be viewed.
“The GFOA has provided invaluable guidance to us in developing our budget presentation over the years,” Murphy observed. “Whether or not your county is interested in participating in the Distinguished Budget Presentation Awards Program, the GFOA.org website, webinars, and publications can offer direction, support, and examples for improving any budget document.”
Polk County shares the same challenges as most other counties considering the current economy: resources, including both money and time, Murphy emphasized.
“We found building a budget at the beginning of a pandemic to be especially challenging, as we had no idea at the time how much impact it would truly have on the state of the economy, whether the unemployment rate would continue to decline or rebound, and how that would affect our various tax and fee revenues,” she detailed.
“At the same time, we, along with every other county in Texas, were also working with a new budget timeline due to changes made in the 86th Legislative Session. On one hand, we were significantly limited in the amount we could increase our tax rate by without an election, and on the other, we had only a week between receiving the No-New-Revenue and Voter Approval rates from the tax assessor-collector and having to vote to set the tax rate,” Murphy elaborated. “If we were going to increase by more than the new 3.5 percent cap, we had to do it in time to order an election to vote on it. It took our budget crunch time to a whole new level.”
- What requests will be the most effective to fund with the revenue available?
- What alternative revenues can be identified to offset shrinking mineral values without placing additional burdens on the taxpayer?
- How will the pandemic affect county revenues and expenses in the years ahead?
- And now, how will we help to beef up our infrastructure before the next big freeze in order to maintain heat and safe drinking water for our residents?
- What other disasters may be looming ahead?
“I’m sure the questions sound familiar,” Murphy recognized. In addition to the tremendous amount of responsibility county officials have in safely providing the services of their respective offices, legislative mandates for data and reporting aimed toward improving the transparency of government have, in turn, added to the workload.
“Officials are hard pressed to ‘budget’ the time for detailed planning and projecting the next year’s budget estimates,” Murphy shared. In advance of preparing a proposed budget, Murphy schedules individual meetings with departments to discuss their specific needs and concerns, input Murphy defines as “invaluable.”
“In preparation for next year’s budget, we’ve asked our elected officials and department heads to take a hard look at their own goals and priorities to help us improve our effectiveness and efficiency in providing the best services at the lowest cost possible for the citizens of Polk County,” Murphy summarized.
Budget Document Presentation: Readable, Searchable, User-Friendly
Once the budge particulars have been set, Polk County creates and posts online a document that goes above and beyond a recitation of the county budget; rather, the budget doubles as a comprehensive educational tool. For example, the fourth page of the 2021 Budget addresses the Top 10 Common Questions About The Budget.
As the county’s budget officer, Murphy opens the county’s budget document with a personal message to the taxpayers, including an executive summary that recaps the planning, process, and key elements of the budget, along with a “budget in brief” for the reader who may not have the time to read specific details.
“Providing the budget document in a searchable form on Polk County’s website is, hands down, the most vital tool for disseminating public information and education regarding county operations and finance,” Murphy underscored. In the budget document itself, graphic illustration plays a vital role and often conveys pages of data in one image to make the document more reader-friendly, Murphy continued. Along with appendices that provide statistical information profiling the county, the Polk County Budget includes a brief overview of “Texas County Government” and a narrative discussion about Polk County, highlighting the county’s history, economy, lifestyle, and places of interest.
Additional sections are presented with an educational slant. For example, when addressing “Strategic and Capital Planning,” budget writers crafted an introductory narrative as follows:
Our Mission: Polk County Government exists in order to provide the highest quality of public service for our citizens. In the fulfillment of this mission, an exemplary quality of life is created for all people of the county, ensuring health, safety, and economic opportunity.
Our Vision: Presenting a cohesive county government committed to effective governing by operating as a team to guarantee our continued success in public service. The citizens of Polk County trust their elected officials and participate fully in the governance of the county. There is maximum effort to determine each citizen’s needs and to respond to those needs appropriately, while expending the least amount of public funds in the most responsible and efficient manner.
The Plan: The Commissioners Court has taken several steps in order to begin the development of a formal strategic plan for the county. These steps include the development of organizational goals, continued work to identify performance and productivity measures, and the creation of various committees formed to address specific issues as they arise. To develop the plan, county elected officials and department heads ranked the following strategic directions for the county:
- Continue to use planning processes to guide the county.
- Continue to provide the most effective and efficient services possible.
- Promote economic development for the creation of opportunities.
- Raise public awareness of county government.
- Develop new revenue sources.
- Maximize the use of technology.
- Attract, train, and retain qualified employees.
- Work cooperatively with all levels of government.
In an ongoing effort, the county’s administration promotes teamwork between county departments and effective communication with the general public.
To view the 2021 Polk County Budget in full, go to http://www.co.polk.tx.us/default.aspx?Polk_County/Budgets.
By Julie Anderson, Editor