Too often the focus of municipal budget discussions is strictly binary; “Is the budget too big?” “too small?” The most important question that we should be asking, however, is whether the municipal budget, at whatever size, is being used effectively. Poor services are overpriced at any amount. Too often, government officials, feeling pressured to reduce budget numbers, achieve that end by simply sacrificing the quality of government services and end up charging their citizens too much for an inferior product. In effect, government ends up doing many things inadequately, incompletely or incompetently. The key to effective leadership is differentiating between necessary spending that promotes value and wasteful spending that does little more than maintain an unsatisfactory and diminishing quality of civic life.
At the philosophical level, it is important that government officials treat “tax money” as a sacred trust. Too often government officials operate in a manner that, provides the impression that they are careless in their spending of “other people’s money.” In reality, government officials need to make it clear that they treat “other people’s money” more carefully than they treat their own money. Regardless of the size of the budget, this principle must be paramount.
At the practical level, it is important to recognize that approximately 80% of the municipal budget is collectively bargained labor costs. Accordingly, effective collective bargaining is essential in order to effectively manage the budget. Having spent my career as a management side labor lawyer, I am very experienced in what is required to be successful in this critical aspect of budget control.