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Inside Tuolumne Co. Gov. Series: Fiscal Reality

Karl RodeferHow Local Government Works … and Why it Sometimes Doesn’t

I am Karl Rodefer, currently the District 5 Supervisor in Tuolumne County.  I will publish a series of articles on County Government, how it works on behalf of residents and why everything that people want accomplished isn’t.  This discussion will attempt to remain factual.  The intent is not to justify decisions; but rather, to write about fiscal realities, mechanics and processes behind local decision making to help the reader make informed assessments about decisions of your Elected Officials.  This venue allows direct communication, absent spin, editing or divining of my motivations.  I am not writing for the Board of Supervisors or Tuolumne County.  I and only I own what is written here.  I applaud and am grateful to Clarke Broadcasting for providing this outlet for the benefit of our public.

The primary constraint on fiscal decision-making, whether at home or Local Government, is fiscal reality.  The simple truth of Government is public expectations exceed the fiscal capacity to meet them.  That is most true at the local level.  Most revenue comes from State and Federal funding or grants.  Those monies generally come with strings attached that dictate how money may be spent.  This greatly limits Local Government flexibility in decision-making on funding Local priorities.

In a fiscally constrained environment setting priorities is critical.  Consistency is important.  If priorities are constantly changing accomplish anything is difficult.  Flexibility is also important.  If circumstances change significantly, the agility to immediately address the emerging issue is crucial.  Also, priorities aren’t necessarily pure.  The number 1 priority doesn’t get all the resources they need before priority two gets anything.  Number 1 may get more of what they need than number two, and two more than number three; however, it is often desirable that as many service sectors as possible get enough to minimally function because a service sector unable to function will result in a loss of those services entirely.  Those circumstances result in the most difficult decisions Government leaders ever face.

In any budget County Government is a zero-sum game.  If one service sector is going to get more, another sector or sectors must get less.  If the public wants an additional service entirely, it must come at the expense of the service sectors that already exist.  Over multiple budget years the cost of providing services generally increases annually faster than revenues increase.  Without on-going investments in increasing revenues and efficiencies in Government, services will atrophy over time.  At the Local Government level, increases in revenues can be made one of three ways:  1) Increase the tax base (more residents paying, increased property values, additional businesses); 2) Increase the tax rates (not generally popular), or 3) Increase County availability to State, Federal or other funding sources (requires active outreach and engagement).  Increases in efficiencies also require investment, either in new technology or in employee development or process improvements.  A common trap in Government is to not prioritize investment for the future.  Investments delayed almost always cost more later.

This was a high-level introduction to what is to come.  In the next segment the discussion will focus on our County budget: what we spend, where the monies come from, how they are allocated to different service sectors and what some of the major considerations are when making those decisions.  The third segment will focus on what the County’s priorities are, how those priorities were set and how they support the County’s Vision, Mission and Values.