Planning for Fiscal Sustainability

Introduction

We are continuing our series of posts on building a more sustainable community. This week we introduce a framework for long-range planning that can tie together the elements we have introduced over the last several weeks.

Context and Scope

The Government Finance Officers Association provides a good introduction to long-term financial planning. Their definition of long-term planning as a combination of forecasts and strategy is useful in the context of fiscal sustainability. Forecasts are our best educated guesses of how key economic and finance variables are likely to change. Strategy is simply considering how those forecasts may impact our goals and identifying actions to improve the chance we get outcomes we want. This is all easier said than done.

Every city has an annual budget process, but planning adds new dimensions and takes time. It requires more than just looking further down the road. It also requires a more open and transparent process where city staff can support local leader decision making and help the public understand the costs and benefits of different levels of public services.

Though planning takes time, any community can afford some level of forecasting and strategic assessment. The key is finding the right balance. One option is to include phasing the process in over a few years, adding more functions. Another approach is to do long-term forecasts for select departments every few years so that all city operations are addressed at least once every two or three years.

The most important factor is that long-term planning become part of the annual budgeting process. The forecasts can help assess risks and needs in the upcoming annual budget. The extra value comes from the longer-term forecasts and how their results can inform changes in overall financial policy. These forecasts can also identify the need be proactive with operating procedures and capital projects.

Key Elements of the Planning Process

Using the GFOA outline, here are our recommendations for how to set up a long-range planning process:

  • Time Horizon – five years is adequate for operational planning. Economic forecasts are unreliable beyond five years. If a community wants to consider longer term consequences they should identify a number of long-term scenarios with varying economic conditions and service assumptions. They can then simulate how these would impact their budget and key fiscal sustainability indicators.
  • Scope – The plan should cover all major funds. The general fund is the priority, but enterprise fund analysis can be just as important to maintaining the viability of those fee-based operations.
  • Frequency – Communities should evaluate at least some of their economic, revenue and operating drivers annually. This helps make the long-term approach a recognized and expected part of the process for decision-makers and the public.
  • Content – The plan should include all types of financial indicators discussed last week: economic and demographic, revenue, spending and operations, debt and infrastructure.
  • Visibility – The plan needs to be a highly visible part of the annual budgeting process. As we pointed out previously, community engagement is key to making these key decisions with public input.

Willingness to pay for services and decisions on priorities require solid public involvement up front. If not, a community may find it difficult to sustain those efforts down the road.

Engagement and City Staff

If communities are going to become more fiscally sustainable, dialogue is at the foundation of the process. We recommend community engagement at each phase of the process. Citizen advisory councils can help staff and local leaders communicate the complexities to the public. By carefully nurturing this translation process, city staff and local leaders can make sure that citizens can constructively contribute to the discussion.

Running a more open and transparent process may raise staff concerns. Staff may worry about their ability to deliver effective and efficient services if the public has greater access. The opposite may be true, however. Current budgeting practices wait too long to engage the public. Cities build a proposed budget and have a big reveal when elected officials and engaged citizens can react. This process involves too much confrontation and can feed public cynicism about government and bureaucrats. In the public reaction, sometimes the political consequences are that staff knowledge and experience is ignored and decisions are made based mostly on emotion.

That technical knowledge found in city halls across the country can be better used in a well-coordinated long-term financial planning process – if that process is inclusive and transparent. Staff can support public decision making with their skills and experience. They become like consultants to local leaders and the public in the planning process. They can help others understand the costs and benefits of short term budget decisions. They can also help local leaders understand the long-term consequences of major changes in the economy and city services, (or be the translators of that information if provided by outside consultants.) In this way, a more open, long-range planning process should strengthen the role of city staff, help local leaders make better decisions and lead to results that are more satisfying to the entire community.

Next Week

Next week, we begin a series of posts looking at some of the major causes of current city financial stress.  Axianomics can help your community implement a long-term financial planning process. Let us know what you want to accomplish.

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