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The Tentacle


April 27, 2004

Take Gardening Principles to The Budget

Alan Imhoff

Working outside in the garden recently clearing out the last of the leaves brought from hither and yon with the winds of winter and then picking up all the dead branches from trees many of which do not even grow on or near my property, I started to think how appropriate that this type of activity is to another annual rite of spring - the budget process of local and state governments.

Each year those of us who have some type of garden, hedge or lawn surrounding our home are blessed with the opportunity to get dirt under our fingernails, bruises on our shins, scrapes and cuts, and maybe even a blister or two as we venture forth on a weekend of lawn and garden maintenance.

We clean up whatever mess has been left by "old man winter," survey what damage has been done to the less hardy plants, and begin to figure out what to replace, what to remove and best of all what to add new.

So, you say, what does this have to do with a governmental budget process?

Really not a lot, but the process of gardening probably should be applied to how governments go through a budgetary cycle.

Imagine if you will every department in a government structure getting ready for spring by first cleaning up all the "debris" from last year's budget and removing all the "dead branches" from line items that did not produce any results or are no longer needed. Continue with that imagination to where departmental directors carefully prune their organizational "tree" to insure that it will survive another year and more importantly, grow in a healthy manner.

But reality sets in, like many of us who balk at doing what needs to be done outside. Rather than tackle this multi-weekend process of getting the yard ready, we would rather watch all the games that make up March Madness as basketball takes over. There is a threat of rain and heaven forbid we might catch the flu, so we better wait for warmer weather.

Then, before you know it, it is time to really get serious about the dreaded tax forms that need to be done by April 15th, so I guess it will be May before I can tackle the back 40.

So, instead of departments heads really doing the type of work that needs to be done on the budget, they find other things to not only keep their line items the same, but in some cases even request additional money to handle what growth demands on their responsibilities. The March Madness of the budget process is how well do I protect what I already have. The deadline of income tax preparation becomes the "how much more can I ask for?"

Department after department uses the rationale that because we added some greater percentage of residents in the jurisdiction a commensurate increase in my budget is required irrespective of whether it is or is not needed.

On and on it goes, on and on it grows.

So, the yard that had only a few trees and bushes to start off with, now consumes 8 to 9 cubic yards of mulch, 6 flower beds now require considerable attention where once there was only grass. Over time attention to all this begins to become routine, bushes and trees grow bigger and bigger, more flowerbeds start to produce things other than flowers. At some point, the yard needs a major facelift.

Heavy-duty work clothes are put on; gloves cover our hands and a multitude of large green trash bags are soon filled from years of deteriorating attention.

Maybe that is what is needed today on our governmental budgets, put on the work clothes, pull off the "kid gloves", and put on the Wells-Lamont budget gloves and do a major pruning job on the budget. Go after the "dead branches" that have been around for decades but are no longer part of today's landscape. Use the rake liberally to straighten up around the bushes and remove leaves and twigs that came from somewhere else. And don't be afraid of getting dirt under our nails.

Like many a garden, superficially it may look okay, but budgets also need to have a hard look to determine if there are any problems, like pesky little bugs in the mulch or some funny looking white splotches on the underside of newly formed leaves. From a distance the budget may look okay, but to someone who looks a little more carefully there may be problems under the surface.

Are we satisfied with the way our garden (budget) looks today, or do we see that maybe this year we may have to do a little extra work to make it better.



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