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Budget book reflects city's process and what the future holds

The 2017 City of New Richmond budget is now in place as city officials begin the new year.

Did you know that:

• For every $1 that you pay in property taxes, about 34 cents goes to the city of New Richmond;

• Those 34 cents are divided amongst the city's operating budget, debt service, tax increment and capital replacements;

• The operating budget is then divided into the various city department budgets, with the largest portion going to public safety (8 cents);

• Of the the other departments, city streets gets 3 cents; administrative operations gets 3 cents; the library gets 3 cents; parks and trails get 1 cent; the airport gets 1 cent and economic development gets less than 1 cent.

That is just some of the information gleaned from the city's recently-released budget book—a document that is available at city hall, the library and online (external link).

For Noah Wiedenfeld, the city's management analyst, and Rae Ann Ailts, the city's finance director, the budget book is a document that they see continuing to allow the city transparency, but it's also a document that's user-friendly and easy to read and understand for the taxpayer.

"The budget books began in 2013 and each year the progression was made to a more graphical narrative that is concise and transparent for the public to easily understand," Ailts said.

"It's one thing to put a spreadsheet on the website, but how many residents will read through it line-by-line to understand where their dollars go?" Wiedenfeld asked. "This [budget book] is a nice balance."

Budget process

The book reflects a process that both Wiedenfeld and Ailts said was developed not only with the city taxpayer in mind, but as a way to get all city staff involved in the effort.

To do that when the process began mid-2016, department heads were broken into groups of three to review other department budgets.

"The teams looked at the individual budgets and discussed areas where they could improve, as well as talking about equipment, staffing and capital needs," Ailts said. "When they came together as a group, I think there were about 37 new ideas brought to the table. Coming in new, was really exciting for me seeing this many ideas. It speaks to the dedication of the staff."

Eventually, those new budget ideas were whittled down to the implementation of about 10 to 15.

Once the budget was finalized in December, the process for completing the budget book for taxpayer consumption began.

The book, which includes breakdowns from each department, was developed when department heads were asked to focus on highlights of the year.

"The challenge is condensing [the information]," Ailts said. "For instance, what photos do we pick for the book? That's a process in itself."

But it's the final product that provides valuable information for the taxpayer. Wiedenfeld and Ailts said that is what's important.

"For me, the collaborative effort of the team members and the council is important," Ailts said. [The book] shows the dedicated staff that enjoys the community they work for and that comes out in this budget book as well."

For Wiedenfeld, his impressions were similar.

"I think it's something the taxpayer can feel proud of ...," he said. "If someone comes in to pay taxes they can see the breakdown of where their tax dollars go. Of course, we are always open for additional comments and suggestions to make it better next year."

"We're also trying to get more social media attention; that has been an effort by the city ...," Ailts said. "We're trying to take a different approach to get the community engaged in the process."

Looking ahead

And it won't be long before city staff begins looking at the budget for 2018.

Ailts said the city would like to streamline the process even more—finishing and adopting a budget in November instead of December.

"Of course, if we do that, it would mean that we push the start of the process up by a month, too," Ailts said.

If the city is to push the process forward, that will mean they will have to address the 2018 budget book earlier as well.

"I feel that being able to have something that's easy to read and is concise and transparent allows the [taxpayer] to be educated as to the projects of the past year. That's the spirit of what we're trying to go after," Ailts said.

But the budget book doesn't do anyone any good if it's not read.

"We encourage people to read it and provide feedback," Wiedenfeld said. "We need to know what to do better for next year."