We suspect the county budget is only as good as the person putting it together.
So when Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman spoke up last week about getting rid of the budget officer in Washington County, we believe it is a conversation that was long overdue.
Like many other counties, Washington County typically uses a sitting supervisor to perform as “budget officer.” It pays that person over $17,000 to do the job. The budget officer gets lots of help from the county administrator and the county treasurer.
That was Idleman’s point. If the county administrator and county treasurer are doing most of the work, why are they paying for a budget officer?
Apparently, politics plays a big role.
Dan Shaw, the Easton supervisor and the current budget officer in Washington County, says the budget is too political to put into a county employee’s hands. If enough supervisors don’t like the way the budget turns out, the county administrator could get fired because of his work on the budget.
That would be problematic.
It also raised questions about how political the budget process is currently, and whether budget officers could be susceptible to granting favors to colleagues or cutting deals to keep the peace.
It seems like it could go both ways. If that is a reality, that is not good either.
School boards rely heavily on business managers to craft budgets with the help of the school superintendent and guidance of the school board, but the business manager does most of the work.
While that seems to work out pretty well, school boards are not nearly as political as county government.
Everyone seems to agree there is a steep learning curve for a supervisor in learning how to do a budget.
We know we wouldn’t want to do it. It is an enormous responsibility to ensure funding for important programs, making sure everyone is getting a fair wage and keeping the tax increase as small as possible.
The best case scenario is a supervisor with a financial background, but that is unusual.
So we wonder if there is a middle ground here.
Perhaps the county could eliminate the budget officer while using a finance committee to give clear and concise preliminary goals for the next year’s budget.
Those goals would be reviewed by the entire board so everyone is on the same page. We suspect the county might be doing something similar already.
To protect the finance officer, we wonder if there needs to be a board of review regarding the budget to ensure politics plays no role in performance evaluation.
The goal should be getting the most talented numbers person to craft your budget while protecting them from the heated politics of the moment.
We believe that can be done.
Washington County has started the conversation. We hope it continues.