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Primer on Reading Local Government Budgets

by Catherine Greene

Searching through a city or county’s upcoming budget or capital plan may provide needed information to help a company get a leg up in the bidding process but it may also take up a great deal of valuable time with uncertain reward.

As a company seeking upcoming local government projects relevant to your skills and services offered, it can be difficult to get a sense of what cities and counties might want in the future. While some local governments post contracting job opportunities on their websites, by the time they’ve done so a rival company may already be in negotiations for the posting. Many local government websites don’t even regularly update or publish these postings online, leaving companies floundering.

However, a greater percentage of local governments do post their yearly operating and capital budgets. Searching through a city or county’s upcoming budget or capital plan may provide needed information to help a company get a leg up in the bidding process but it may also take up a great deal of valuable time with uncertain reward. Where should one even begin to look for relevant projects or purchases? What is the most effective way to read through a local government’s budget in order to save time?

Most budgets are divided up into the following sections: Budget Introduction, Revenues, Expenditures, and Capital Improvements Plan. Sections are usually included in a singular document, though some cities and counties may separate them into different documents on their websites. Revenues and Expenditures are usually divided up into sections depending upon the various funds local governments draw on. The Expenditures section is also usually divided into sections based upon city or county departments, detailing what each department is spending their appropriations on. Furthermore, in some cases the Capital Improvements Plan may be shown only for the upcoming year, for the upcoming five years, or be a separate document.

Other sections may or may not be included in a budget depending upon the locale, including Personnel and Staffing information, Economic Forecasts, Fiscal Policies, and Debt Service Payments. The latter two sections are usually included towards the beginning of the document while the former may be included under departmental summaries or in a section by itself. While these sections may provide an interesting overview of the local government in question, they will not provide any information on upcoming projects and purchases.

The budget introduction is useful for companies to consider for various reasons. The introduction gives a general sense of the local government’s priorities for the upcoming fiscal year and may highlight new and interesting projects. In the case of smaller cities and counties with less money to spend, the budget introduction may even include a list of one-time purchases of interest, saving the time it would take to go searching through the entire document.

 If not included in the introduction, large projects and/or purchases of interest are most often found in the Capital Improvements Plan section. In some cases, specifically if the budget document only captures the city or county’s spending for the upcoming year, it can be difficult to tell whether or not a project is a continuation or a new project. However, a majority of budgets include either previous years spending or spending upcoming over the next five years for these projects, making it easier to understand the time range.

Capital Improvements Plans include projects related to construction and design, involving transportation, water, wastewater, sewer, and building renovations. They may also include large purchases, usually for replacement vehicles or equipment that benefit the entire city or county. More specific or smaller purchases, such as for software, public safety equipment, and even consultation requests, are usually highlighted in Departmental Expenditure Overviews. In some cases, local governments will include a section for each department detailing specific changes in the budget from previous years while in others only the budget is presented.

 It is difficult to give very specific advice on finding more information, due to that fact that city and county budgets can vary widely from locale to locale. Some provide a great deal of information while others provide very little – for example, a city or county budget running 40 to 50 pages is likely to be less helpful. The average helpful budget runs a few hundred pages or more depending upon the size of the local government in question. In some cases budgets may even run for over a thousand pages, almost becoming overly detailed and repetitive.

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For an example, consider Hartford, Connecticut’s budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year. It’s a very typical budget, running around 370 pages with all of the sections previously discussed including the Capital Improvements Budget. Helpfully enough, this document includes instructions on how to read the Expenditures section on page 63. While each budget is different, this guide may be useful even beyond this singular document.

The Expenditure section highlighted by this Expenditure reading guide with the most relevance for prospective bidders is Significant Features. This section discusses important aspects of each Department’s budget and may have different titles or forms in other documents if it is included at all. Here, Significant Features takes the place of a text description.

 The Capital Improvements Plan is also very typical, with line item summaries of new and on-going projects and funding for the upcoming years. It then expands upon each project in following pages with specific project descriptions, a more detailed funding schedule, and other information of interest. This set up makes it easy for prospective bidding companies to find projects that may match their skill set and search the document for more specific information, saving time.


About our Analyst
Catherine Greene is an Intern for GovDirections. She is a student at the University of Georgia currently studying for a dual degree for a Bachelor’s in International Affairs and a Master’s in Public Administration. She plans to graduate in May 2018 and begin a career in Policy Analysis.

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