Local governments will begin their annual budget-making processes in the next few weeks. That will renew an ongoing debate in Washington County between the members of the Quorum Court and the county's various department heads over how -- or how not -- to spend taxpayer dollars.
Regular readers of this space may recall a budget cycle a few years ago when justices of the peace on the Quorum Court -- essentially the legislative body of county government -- closely questioned various departments on individual line items in their proposed budgets for the next year. One example we recall had to do with an expected expense for new tires showing up in one department's food budget. The explanation was that in a previous year, more money was budgeted for food than was spent, and the excess was used to buy tires. Because the department hadn't overspent its overall budget appropriation, no questions were raised at the time. So somehow, new tires became a part of the food budget line. It was just the way things were done.
What’s the Point: We like the idea of putting more limits on how Washington County departments move money around in their various annual budgets.
Justices, understandably, didn't think that was the best way to run a railroad, and have since begun to insist on a more accurate budgeting process so that they -- and the taxpayers -- can better understand how county government operates.
Allowing department heads the flexibility to move small amounts of money from line to line without Quorum Court approval certainly has some merit. However, if things go too far, and items that should be in one category get permanently moved to another, then the budget itself loses its relevance and makes it difficult for anyone to evaluate a department's accountability and operations.
And that brings us to today, as preparations begin for Washington County's 2015 budget. Among the matters discussed at recent preliminary meeting was setting a limit on the amount of money a county department can move without the approval from the justices of the peace.
Some court members, like Justice Eva Madison, see such a rule as enhancing the court's ability to fulfill its primary function as guardian of the county taxpayers' purse.
"The budget is our single most important obligation," Madison said. "If we turn that power over, I'm not sure what the Quorum Court even does."
Others think that as long as a department's overall spending remains at or below the appropriated amount, moving money from line to line is no big deal.
"That gives the flexibility for the department heads to run their departments," said Justice Ann Harbison.
We think Madison is on to something. We'd favor a limit for such line-item changes during the year, and not just for big ticket or capital expenditures.
The budgeting process should be about more than simply dividing up taxpayer dollars among the county's various fiefdoms to spend as they see fit. Its should be evaluating what each department does with our money, and whether it can be spent in a smarter, more effective way. If department heads are required to stick more closely to their original budgets and monitor expenses as the year goes on, it will provide better insight about how to do their jobs more effectively.
Of course, that means some additional work for the departments to do. And it also means more work for the justices if they want to exert more influence in the process, but the result would likely be a benefit to the taxpayers, in both services and savings.Commentary on 07/22/2014