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Inside Tuolumne Co. Gov. Series: Setting Priorities

How Local Government Works … and Why it Sometimes Doesn’t

This is the third in a series of discussions about Local Government. The last dealt with fiscal aspects of County Government: revenues, expenditures and constraints imposed on decision-making. This discussion will focus on setting priorities in a fiscally constrained budget and how your County Government sets priorities as a prelude to and part of the budget process.

Two points made in previous discussions are important. First, in Government, the aggregate public demand for services exceeds the fiscal capacity to meet that demand. Second, much of the County’s total Budget is not discretionary. How that money may be spent is specifically directed by the source of the money. Only roughly 20% of our total Budget can be applied where the Board of Supervisors wishes. In Tuolumne County’s case that is about $45M of the $217M Budget for 2018-19. To spend that money wisely and ensure the most vital services (such as public safety) get enough funding, it is important to prioritize among our competing services prior to and during the yearly budget process.

Tuolumne County determines its priorities each year through a moderated Strategic Planning Workshop held in late January. That time was selected because it is the earliest that any newly elected Supervisor(s) could participate in the process and have the workshop results inform the next budget process. The workshop methodology evolves from year-to-year, but the fundamental structure remains. The first half to full day the Board, CAO and County Counsel review the previous year assessing County performance against the County Vision, Mission and Values with the goals and priorities of the previous year. They identify how that might inform our priorities in the coming year. The second full day is spent with the County Leadership Team (department heads and assistant department heads). During that session, they review their past year successes and their challenges going forward to accomplish their missions. They also provide the Board their input what our priorities ought to be for the year ahead. This is an opportunity for all of them to hear from their contemporaries what is going on across the County staff and is the only such opportunity during the year to have that visibility and to communicate as a team with the Board of Supervisors. The third day is usually a half day where the Board of Supervisors, CAO and County Counsel wrap up all the input that was received from staff and the public and finalize priorities for the coming year.

A key aspect of this event is that it is held, not in the County Board Chambers or any other venue in proximity to the staff’s workspaces. The primary reason for holding the event off-site is to get the staff away from the day-to-day work environment chiefly to remove the distractions of the workplace to provide for a more informal and relaxed setting thus focusing on productive communication and thinking. The value of this is both widely recognized and routinely implemented in both Government and the private sector. It is a public meeting and, as such, the public is welcome, and their participation is both important and encouraged.

This year’s workshop resulted in the following four external and two internal priorities for the coming year: Externally, Fire Preparedness, Land Use (defending General Plan against lawsuit and updating County Ordinance Codes), Road Improvements, and Vulnerable Populations; and internally, Employee Development and County Infrastructure (Buildings and Information Technology). One final thought concerning priorities: As discussed in the opening segment, consistency is important. Constantly changing priorities often results in failing to get anything accomplished. However, consistency must be moderated at times with some measure of flexibility. If significant changes to the County situation occur, the Board and the Staff need to be flexible enough to adapt to the impacts of such changes. Staff is encouraged to keep the Board on track with the existing priorities and the Board needs to constantly keep their eyes on the evolving situation while being ever vigilant for unpredictable changes on the horizon.

This discussion focused on our County priorities: The process the County uses in developing the annual priorities, the importance of staff and public involvement and the results from this year’s Strategic Planning Workshop. The fourth segment will discuss a significant driver in budgeting: Employee compensation. Under review will be our Classification and Compensation Study that we completed several years ago, how the study was constructed and why, and how the results of that study informed the fiscal baseline for determining our compensation structure going into follow-on negotiations. The following segment will discuss Economic Development, why it is important in any jurisdiction and what are the various facets of Economic Development.