Gipper promotes team approach to tackling budget
I was relieved to hear a few people snickering when I said that I was about to give this year's “Gipper” speech.
“Gipper,” to readers who weren't alive during either the Knute Rockne or Ronald Reagan eras, refers to George Gipp, a star of the Notre Dame football team about 90 years ago. Gipp, who died of some disease during his senior year in college, was alleged to have had a deathbed conversation with his coach, Knute Rockne, imploring him to invoke his name when things looked bleak for the Fighting Irish, and “win one for the Gipper.”
Reagan appropriated this line during his presidency, which always seemed fair to me, because he played the Gipper in one of my favorite sports movies, “Knute Rockne All-American.”
I refer to any motivational speech that I am asked to give as a Gipper speech. The occasion of the one I gave on July 12 was a meeting of department heads and finance staff to formally kick off our 2014 budget process. I mentioned that I was relieved that there were at least a few people who recognized my reference to the Gipper. This will be the 13th budget that I have worked on at Walworth County, and each year it seems that the faces in the room, with the exception of mine, look younger.
Things aren't as desperate for Walworth County as they were for the Irish in 1928 when Rockne invoked the Gipper's name in a game against undefeated Army. On the other hand, we can all use a few words of encouragement. My version of the Gipper speech focused on three major themes as county managers began putting together their budget requests for next year.
Our goal for the past three years has been pretty straightforward. The state has placed strict limits on the growth of county budgets. With the exception of a small allowance that takes into account new construction that has taken place in the county during the past year, the amount of money levied by Wisconsin counties is frozen at its previous year's level. Given that new construction has been increasing at a slow pace in recent years, our tax levy needed to support the 2014 budget will essentially be frozen at the level it's been at for the past two years.
Despite the fact that we need to freeze the overall tax levy, I've never given the direction that each departmental budget must be frozen; rather, I stress that our goal needs to be accomplished through a team effort. Not all departments are able to freeze their budgets each year. The loss of state or federal revenue, or an increased demand for services, may require the need for additional tax dollars in one department. Rather than automatically cutting an important service in that department, we look to see whether another department can fill the budget gap by cutting spending in a way that would be less disruptive to county residents.
While managers are passionate about the services they provide, they understand the big picture and always have stepped up to reach our goal of a zero-levy growth budget.
Spend money that will save money
Innovation is one of the first casualties when an edict is given to freeze departmental budgets. As is the case with our own household budgets, there often are purchases that can be made now that will save money in the future. Replacing an energy-inefficient appliance or a car that spends more time in the shop than on the road are two examples that come to mind.
County departments are no different. I would happily spend $3 on a one-time purchase today that will save $1 each year in the future. Energy efficiency and automation projects are two examples of such purchases in the governmental setting.
While we may not have tax dollars to implement all of them, particularly because we don't plan on borrowing in the foreseeable future, I always like to see what our options are. When projected savings are high enough, it would be counterproductive not to take a serious look at these types of purchases.
Find out what employees think
Employees, who work on the front line, often are in the best position to see what works and what doesn't. I encourage managers to solicit ideas from workers in their departments. Each year employees come up with ways that stretch tax dollars further.
Our budget kickoff meeting was a bit of a misnomer. A number of staff members have been working on the 2014 budget for months. For the next few weeks, department heads will be busy finalizing their plans. I meet with each of them in late August to put the first draft of the budget together.
If you are interested in how your tax dollars will be spent next year, put a few dates on your calendar now.
The first draft of the 2014 budget will be released at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, at a board workshop that is open to the public. A public hearing on the preliminary budget will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, and final adoption is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12.
All meetings will be held in Room 114 at the County Government Center in Elkhorn.