City Hall puts 'services' in driver's seat
Publication Date: Friday Jul 29, 1994

GOVERNMENT: City Hall puts 'services' in driver's seat

Line-item budgets will soon be out the window in Palo Alto

It rolls off the tongue like day-old oatmeal:

Mission Driven Budgeting.

While those three words may induce sleep when heard by a layman's ears (or evoke images of planning a car trip to California's Spanish missions), to city officials they are golden words of enlightenment--words that will revolutionize the way Palo Alto slices its thick budget pie.

Talk to Palo Alto City Manager June Fleming and she'll make it sound as if Mission Driven Budgeting is the name of her new child. She's very enthusiastic.

Simply put, Fleming said, this new budget process will provide the ability to look at the costs of providing services, rather than the cost of supporting organizations, as traditional line-item budgets do.

That will allow the City Council, with the help of the community, to evaluate the services Palo Altans cherish according to their costs and benefits.

"It's not a new concept at all," Fleming said. Similar "program" budgets have been in place in other cities for years.

Proposed soon after Fleming took the city manager's post in December 1992, the budget concept was approved by the Council last summer. A prototype of its structure and methodologies will be discussed at Monday's Council meeting. If all goes as planned, it will be ready to go in time for the 1995-96 budget.

Vice Mayor Joe Simitian is looking forward to that day.

"With its current structure, our budget is almost impossible to use to make any choices at the Council level because we don't know the cost of providing services, but only the cost of supporting departments," he said.

"A good budget ought to be an auditing document, a policy document and a choice document. If you don't have a budget you can use to make thoughtful, well-informed choices, than you're abdicating your responsibility to set policy for the city."

Fleming warns that transitioning the city to Mission Driven Budgeting means a massive change in the way the city functions--from payroll to accounting systems--and the change won't happen overnight. "It's not going to be flawless, and it's not going to be a panacea," she admits, reluctantly.

--Peter Gauvin 

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