To say the least, budget season is a busy time in local government. I have witnessed the stress of this time of year during my first few weeks in Person County as I helped prepare documents for Board meetings and budget work sessions. The work that has gone into preparing the recommended budget, culminated in a final budget work session on Monday night. In a nearly three hour meeting, county commissioners voted to adopt the budget after making a few changes. I was most surprised by the lack of contention during this meeting, but it played out in a pretty tame manner as commissioners listened to a couple of department heads and asked any outstanding questions to the staff. To the delight of County staff, they will vote on a budget ordinance for the next fiscal year on schedule this coming Monday.
As we thoroughly learned in Public Financial Management this spring, the staff’s explanation and justification for the budget is a major component of a recommended budget. Convincing elected officials to accept your recommendations and understand the relevance to your community, frames the discussion and the direction for your organization for at least one year, with many items having more lasting effects. There are different strategies that can be used, but ultimately the staff must be prepared for various scenarios and understand the Board’s priorities. This incites a great deal of anxiety for the staff who plays a bit of give and take with their own priorities to compromise with commissioners to do what is best for the county. It is also important to be clear and transparent, especially in a culture that encourages distrust of government and a desire to expose fraud, waste, and abuse. This was demonstrated in Monday night’s meeting, as a commissioner spent the better part of an hour going through the 133 page recommended budget document to ask questions about various line items. I was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when he asked about a line for a part-time employee in the County administration budget. This part-time employee happened to be me and everyone just blankly looked at the commissioner then at me until he realized that I was the subject of his question. The conversation went something like this:
Commissioner 1: “Page 45; Administration expenditures… what’s this second line? Part time salary and wages…?”
Commissioner 2: “…that’s for an intern…”
Commissioner 1 glances at me sitting on the front row and says, “Oh…that’s for that young lady right there…”
I awkwardly smile and wave my hand while others nod in affirmation.
Of course, my recollection of this event is probably more dramatic than it actually was, and you probably needed to be there to catch the humor, but it was definitely a funny moment that provided some comic relief to the meeting. I’m sure it’s difficult to argue that a position is unnecessary when the person filling it is in front of you. (I’m glad I was there being productive, otherwise I might be looking for another internship if this conversation went badly).
This experience helped me fully understand why staff works so hard to come up with the narrative around budget recommendations because nothing is safe—not even the intern.
Come back next Friday to read about my day with Person County EMS!