Master plan priorities should be considered in budget processes

Yearly budgets can create a short-term approach to local financial management.

Local units of governments prepare annual budgets. For many, this process has been very painful over the last few years, especially those communities that saw their property tax revenue drop by one-third or more. Some the state’s poorest communities were already struggling to balance the budget before the last recession and the great housing crisis. The result has been deep staff cuts and significant reductions in services.

During difficult financial times, many communities become very good at focusing on the immediate needs of the community. Some may call it the keeping-the-lights-on strategy to fiscal management. Discussions of mandatory and non-mandatory services become more prevalent and departments compete against each other for a shrinking portion of the financial pie. Focusing on the immediate sounds like a very reasonable and practice approach. However, during times of limited resources is the exact time that communities should think about their overall community priorities.

According to Michigan State University Extension, the master plan of a community establishes a vision with goals and strategies to implement that vision. Local units should look to their plans to see if they are indeed following that plan and if they are allocating limited resources in a manner that will help the community work toward achieving the vision. Well-prepared plans have considerable input through their community engagement processes. Residents talk and discuss the kind of community they are and would like to become. This valuable information should be incorporated into the budgetary process. Master plans can help communities to think long-term. They can aid in the decision making process by helping to define what is important to a community.

Unfortunately, they are rarely mentioned during the budget process designed to address the immediate need of local units from one year to the next. The best budget processes plan for three to five years. Master plans are planned for 20 years and are reviewed every five years. For communities that are willing to use them, they can prove to be invaluable in understanding a community’s vision, a vision created with input from those most affected—the residents.

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