Is there such a thing as a budget that’s easy to read? Three women in Mammoth Lakes seem to think so, which is why they approached the Town of Mammoth Lakes several months ago with the intent of developing a plan for reformatting the budget, on a pro bono basis, so that the average citizen of Mammoth can read and understand the Town’s finances.
On Monday evening, Deb Pierrel, Joyce Turner and Sandy Hogan presented the Town Council with another update on their budget reformatting findings. The women were pleased to announce that their initial instincts that the Town did not need to buy fancy new software to create a more readable budget, were correct. The real issue is changing Mammoth’s culture and getting staff buy-in to change the way things are currently run.
“It is not as big [a change] as some people are making it out to be,” Pierrel told The Sheet. “But the culture and the receivership of the new process among staff makes implementation not doable right now.”
“Right now the Town is using an AS400 system, which acts as a data warehouse,” Pierrel explained Monday night. “The Town can continue to use the AS400; it just needs to upgrade the system to be able to export data into a useable form, or a data flat file. We have the information we need we just need to utilize all the avenues that the company provides.”
Pierrel added that the TOML is one of very few clients using AS400 that is not up to speed with these data flat files. The Town currently produces huge paper reports that are not malleable. So, all of the information is already there, the Town just needs to organize it in a more readable fashion and get the skill sets in house to create the new reports. Council member Rick Wood and Mayor Skip Harvey seemed to think the consultants were on the right track.
“The public criticizes how this government spends money because they don’t know how we spend it,” Wood said. “And historically, Council hasn’t really known either. A clearer budget will help Council know how to spend money better.”
Harvey claimed that even though he had been away from the dais for a few months due to illness, the process he saw before him on Monday was “Skip-friendly.”
“The table of contents [in the sample document] is familiar and helps me get where I need to go,” Harvey said. “You can see what you want quickly and are able to ask for a specific nugget of information.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jo Bacon was more skeptical, wondering how much it was going to cost to train employees to use the new flat data files. Pierrel assured her that the ultimate goal was to have a smaller, more streamlined staff.
“These skill sets are not hard to find,” Pierrel said.
The new process would also call for more diligent tracking of the budget. Monthly reports would be expected from staff and the proposed budget would be presented in February rather than May. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year would be worked on at the same time as the mid-year budget review.
“You would always be working on two budgets at once,” Hogan explained, “the current budget and next year’s budget.”
The women pointed to Park City, Utah as an example of a community that is able to keep up with this more rigorous budgeting schedule.
“Park City doesn’t wait three or four months to determine its revenues, they get it within one month,” Pierrel explained.
Council pointed out that the TOT was usually what they were waiting on, but Pierrel said that TOT reports could be requested earlier from businesses.
“It’s just a matter of pushing a button on the computer to print out the report,” she said.
Until now, Hogan, Pierrel and Turner have been doing the majority of their research on their own. They have been in contact with staff just to see how things are running now. The next step in this process will be for the consultants to sit down with the budget subcommittee to explain what it would really take to implement this new budget format. Implementation, however, will be a whole other process and one that will not come free to the Town, according to Pierrel.
“The work of the reformatting committee is essentially done,” she told The Sheet. “The implementation plan now needs to be developed. The Town is not ready for implementation as it sits now. It needs to have complete buy-in and accountability, i.e. leadership, first.”
Town Manager Rob Clark told The Sheet that the benefit of using local consultants for this project has been that “they have a fresh perspective. They view the budget as the community views the budget and can relate to the frustrations that the community feels…plus they are cheap.”
Clark explained that when the Town considers consultants for a project they are looking for expertise in a specific area.
“If the skills are available locally then we use them,” Clark said, citing local consultants used for engineering projects as an example. In the case of budget reformatting, viewing the budget as a community member was the expertise the Town was looking for, according to Clark.
The consultants and the budget committee will hold a meeting to see how the Town wants to proceed with implementation. In the meantime, Clark will continue looking for a new Administrative Services Director, which will combine the Finance and Human Resources Director positions, and thus will play an important role in budgeting.
“I hope to have someone in the position by Feb. 1, 2011,” Clark said. He then believed there would be some overlap with the current Finance Director Brad Koehn before Koehn took his leave. Koehn was part of the Town’s layoffs that occurred in September.