Misery Loves Company

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

OK, I admit, I’m writing this column because misery loves company, and I want to know if everyone else out there is feeling this budget crunch as badly as we are in Peachtree City, Ga.

One thing I’ve learned since starting in local government is that public-finance people are, by nature and profession, tight-fisted, frugal and penny-pinching–at least the good ones are. That’s their job–to make sure there’s more money left at the end of the month than month left at the end of the money.

I’ve worked with at least three different finance directors since taking this position in 1997, and each year as we went into the budget cycle we heard the same lament.

“This is going to be a tough budget year coming up, toughest we’ve ever faced,” they would say in our preliminary meetings. Then, after sweating departments out of every bit of spare change, the director would magically come up with funding for needed items and programs until the next budget cycle, when it would again be the worst ever seen.

Now, after surviving two or three of these cycles, feeling like I’d probably rather be in Iraq getting shot at than sitting through a budget hearing, I began to see the trend, got into a rhythm, and learned the rules of the game. Then it became more of a “boy-who-cried-wolf” story, that it was the finance director’s job to predict gloom and doom, and my job to articulate what we needed to get the job done, and allow our elected officials to make the final decision.

This year is different.

Reality Hits

This year the boy cried wolf, and there really is a wolf out there. Our city is better off than many, having implemented long-standing, frugal financial policies to provide a great quality of life within our means. So we are probably insulated slightly more than many, and it may take a year or two more to hit us.

Now, I’m not going to get into the political decisions that may have led us to where we are, or the staff recommendations to make small incremental increases in the millage rate that would have cushioned the fall. It’s not my place. Suffice it to say that, in spite of good advice from the city staff, we are where we are. As a wise man once told me, “It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t, so don’t make what it is what it ain’t.” This is really sage advice once you figure out what it means–you may need to read it two or three times. Where we are is cutting the current city budget by more than a million dollars in order to balance it. Where we are is deferring maintenance, canceling purchases of equipment and vehicles, canceling non-essential projects. Where we are is facing the same thing–maybe even more severe next year–unless and until the economy picks up.

Indeed, the wolf is at the door.

More With Less

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