Dane County Budget Process Needs Reform

Written by Matt Kozlowski, Co-Chair of Progressive Dane

As the entire State of Wisconsin continues to live with the shock of our new State Budget, Dane County residents, activists, and agencies are gearing up for yet another round of budgeting (no, not more horror from our state legislature): the Dane County budget. While the County budget is rarely examined with the same expectation of horror and disbelief as our state and federal budget, the community should treat our municipal budgets with the same degree of importance. 

Some of the highlights from this most recent state budget deliberations include attempts to sideline public oversight of government, complete disregard for the opinions of constituents, and drastic changes made behind closed doors. All of these elements can also be found in previous Dane County budget cycles.

The County Budget Process

For those of you who aren't complete budget nerds like me, the Dane County budget process is fairly simple. The process starts off with public hearings to discuss community needs (typically around mid-summer), followed by some general instructions from the County Executive to the County department heads about the overall budget. From here, the heads of the various County departments submit their budget requests to the County Executive. After some review, the County Executive makes changes as they see fit to the departmental requests, and submits their own Executive Budget Proposal. This is where the County Board of Supervisors joins the process formally and takes up various sections of the budget in different County Committees.

Sections of the budget related to environmental issues will be forwarded to Environment, Agriculture, and Natural Resources; items related to public safety will be heard by the Public Protection and Judiciary Committee; issues related to human services will be considered by the Health and Human Needs Committee, and so on. The Committees will discuss their sections of the budget, consider amendments brought by Supervisors, hear testimony from the public, and then send their amendments on to the Personnel and Finance Committee for final reconciliation and deliberation before final passage by the full County Board.

Sounds harmless enough, right? While I have to admit, the general structure of our budget process sounds like something anyone would have a hard time objecting to, the devil is in the details.

Problems With the Budget Process

The County Budget process, as harmless as it sounds, is marred with the same issues that plague our recent state budget cycle. For instance, the County tends to downplay the importance of public input in the process, makes major changes away from public view, and keeps materials in formats that aren't accessible by constituents. In last year's budget process, for example, the County's Health and Human Needs Committee (which controls the largest portion of the budget) established a troubling practice of introducing budget amendments after all public testimony had elapsed. In effect, this forced advocates and agencies to make wild guesses about what kinds of changes may have been introduced, or rely on rumors in preparing for their 3 minutes of input in the budget process. The worst outcome from this practice were changes that were made without any notice to the public or individual agencies who were effected by budget amendments.

Another troubling problem with last year's budget process was the use of a single large motion (commonly referred to as an Omnibus motion) to make major changes to the budget at the final step of the process. In this case, the budget had already been through the various meetings of the Personnel and Finance Committee, and the County was having the final hearing on the budget before sending it to the full County Board for final approval (where no public testimony is allowed). At this meeting, after the public had given testimony, the County Board introduced a motion which completely changed major portions of the budget, undid previously discussed items, and provided no notice or recourse to agencies or the people they serve. Some questions were also raised about how such major changes were made to the budget without any discussion or debate in the Committee process or at the County Board.

A final major process concern is the lack of partnership between the County, the nonprofits that conduct the human services work of the County, and the public at large. When amendments are considered that make major changes to agency funding or to funding priorities, there is often no consultation or notice given to the impacted agencies or the communities served by those agencies. Without sufficient public input or discussion about these changes, the public is subject to wild changes in what services they can expect from the County, no ability to speak to the impact of these changes, and there is no recourse for those who will be left without vital assistance that they've come to rely on.

Reading the County Budget

Perhaps one of the most important issues to address as it relates to the budget and transparency is the need to produce a budget that is easily understood by the public at large. As it stands now, this is how the budget typically reads for funding to a human services agency:

ORG:      CYFCTYSS

OBJECT: CVCIAA

From this listing, can you tell what is being funded? If an amendment appeared to strip funding to this item, would you be able to figure out what is being changed?

Solutions and Other Recommendations

In order to remedy these problems, the County needs to take the following immediate steps:

Expand Public Input

Dane County has made good progress by allowing for public testimony on the budget in advance of the County Executive's Budget Proposal. However, the process doesn't allow for sufficient public comment on budget amendments which are often the most controversial items considered and are where the largest changes with significant impact on the community are made. By allowing for additional public comment periods, the County Board could create stronger ties to the public, where the budget process is more of a partnership than the current adversarial structure.

To make this possible, the County should require at least one additional meeting for any committee that introduces an amendment during the committee process. Additionally, the County should look to increase flexibility in time limits imposed on the public and allow for presentations by community groups and agencies. Lastly, the County should allow for public testimony at the final meeting of the County Board where the budget is passed (testimony is currently prohibited at this meeting).

Increase Amendment Transparency

Despite being some of the most important items in the budget, several committees fail to provide amendments to the public prior to any meeting where amendments are considered. While legislators shouldn't be constrained from their ability to make amendments, the public shouldn't be constrained from their right to informed testimony. Even the committees that do manage to publish amendments in advance of meetings tend to do so with less than 24 hours notice, which leaves little to no time for discussion or review of the implications of an amendment.

The solution here may seem onerous, but committees should be required to public amendments 72 hours in advance of any committee meeting dealing with budget amendments. This standard has been utilized by the City of Madison for many years and has not prevented the city from conducting business in a timely manner. Additionally, the County should provide summary sheets of all proposed amendments, similar to those produced by the City of Madison's Board of Estimates. This, along with the requirements of an additional meeting for amendments introduced from the floor, will allow for reasonable transparency in the amendment process.

Provide Notice to Agencies

In the previous budget cycle, several organizations and service agencies were targeted for funding cuts without providing adequate notice (or sometimes no notice at all). Not only does this create an environment where organizations doing essential human services work are at odds with the County, this also prevents the public from weighing in on how changes might impact their lives. Providing notice to organizations and service agencies allows time for community discussion and debate, research when needed, and time for community groups to organize their clients to provide their input.

After the County has adopted the 72-hour rule, this change will be an easy next step. When the 72-hour notice of amendments is published, County Staff need only forward these notices on to agencies and organizations funded by the County.

In short, these issues create significant problems in allowing the public to access our budget process, create an adversarial relationship between the agencies doing work for the county and local government, and create significant distrust in government.

Progressive Dane published a report summarizing transparency issues in the Dane County budget. Click here to read our report and to find out more.