Charlottesville deserves kudos for its new budgeting process.
Called “zero-based budgeting,” the process itself isn’t new — but the city’s adoption of that process is a departure from precedent.
In the traditional approach, new budgets are simply based on old budgets. Officials take a look at what was budgeted, or spent, last year, and use that as the starting point for next year’s budget. Budgets might be increased for inflation or to reflect new needs; occasionally, they might be reduced. But the presumption is that the old budget is a sound template for the new budget.
Traditional budgeting is common across governments and businesses.
Zero-based budgeting instead emphasizes the fresh start. Nothing is assumed — not that needs are the same, not that spending should be the same. Budgeters must start from an assumption of zero and then prove that spending requests are truly justified.
Zero-based budgeting is being launched by City Manager Tarron Richardson, who came on board earlier this year.
One problem with traditional budgeting is that once programs are funded, they might never disappear. They are routinely approved year after year, with only minor adjustments in funding levels. They might have outlived their usefulness, but they are not dropped from the budget as dead weight.
Zero-based budgeting demands that leaders evaluate programs’ usefulness. That requirement increases the odds that they will recognize when programs are no longer serving a purpose and should no longer be funded — or should be funded at a lesser figure.
Conversely, it allows leaders to identify programs that might need more funding.
Either way, citizens are more likely to receive the services that truly benefit them and taxpayers are more likely to be protected from government waste.
The new process is good for the public in another way: It can promote transparency in spending by helping officials collect more information about spending decisions, said Ryan Davidson, a senior city budget and management analyst.
And, with the exception of details allowed by law to be withhold from public view, that data then would be available to citizens as well.
All the background information might not be in the budget packets eventually submitted to City Council — but that doesn’t mean it won’t be available for anyone who wishes to study it.
Zero-based budgeting isn’t easy. It requires city officials do more groundwork as part of the budget justification process — a “labor-intensive” undertaking, Mr. Davidson noted.
Nor can it be instantly perfected. “This is something that’s going to be a gradual process,” Mr. Davidson said, “because this is the first time a lot of us have done this.”
But Charlottesville deserves applause for taking this step. The results should be government that is both more efficient and more responsive to residents’ current needs. Not their needs from decades past, but rather what is best for them today.