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Lee’s Summit City Council considers a new approach to crafting city budgets

File photo

Like many growing cities, Lee’s Summit faces increased demands for city services and the employees necessary to perform them. It also is struggling to find the additional revenue it will need to pay for that growth.

On Thursday, the City Council considered one solution: changing how it allocates tax dollars in the city’s annual budget.

Chris Fabian, co-founder of the Denver-based consulting firm ResourceX, walked council members through a process he called “priority-based budgeting.”

Unlike the normal process of building a spending plan by reviewing the city’s existing expenses and adjusting them for inflation, new demands and changes in revenue, Fabian said, the new system requires elected officials to build future spending around a handful of key city goals.

Mayor Bill Baird

For example, a city could decide it wants to emphasize public safety, a diverse economy and an environmentally sustainable community. It would then evaluate every function in city government by how well it contributes to the success of one or more of those goals.

Services that score poorly in that evaluation could be eliminated, cut back, performed more efficiently or turned over to a public or private partner in the community that provides those services already.

The resources freed up by those decisions could then be reallocated to create new services or strengthen existing functions that better align with the main priorities.

“That’s how you grow the budget, that’s how you start programs when you actually have no money coming into your organization,” Fabian said.

Assuming this exercise does not provide enough new growth to meet the city’s needs, leaders could then consider increasing efficiency or seeking other sources of revenue, such as raising fees or increasing taxes.

Fabian said more than 200 cities across the United States and Canada are already using some level of priority-based budgeting, including Kansas City; the Unified Government of Wyandotte County-Kansas City, Kan.; and Shawnee.

Some council members said they were interested in the idea, especially given the struggles they have seen in recent years as utility fees — the city’s third-largest revenue source — have declined, forcing the city to delay numerous requests for expanded services and new employees.

“I really like what I’m hearing, in theory,” Mayor Bill Baird said.

steve arbo
City Manager Steve Arbo

Council member Rob Binney said this approach could help reduce some of the political pressure that can enter budget discussions. For example, the council earlier this year fought over how to make up an estimated 10 percent shortfall in city employee wages.

“It’s an interesting concept worth considering,” he said.

Council member Bob Johnson said he, too, was interested in priority-based budgeting but cautioned that the council should wait for the results on a citizen-led strategic planning process being held this fall before making decisions on budget priorities.

“I really think it’s important to get citizen input,” Johnson said.

City Manager Steve Arbo agreed that the city will need to wait to see the results of that planning before deciding whether to hire Fabian’s firm to begin evaluating city services. But he said any change would be good to avoid the incremental progress city staff have seen with the current budget process.

“This approach, to me, allows our city to maybe look at the bigger question of, ‘Are we using our funds in the best way possible on the most important items and services of the city?’ ” Arbo said.

David Twiddy: