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A pie in the face

Six-hundred-and-eighty-five million dollars is nothing to sneeze at.

But its size isn’t what matters. What matters is how little we, the people, seem to understand about it, and that matters a lot because citizens ought to feel assured that their government and management partners in the community govern and mange it wisely and well.

Accounting is about accountability, and fiscal and financial responsibilities are serious, complex, and foremost in the successful operation of everything involving money - especially other people’s money.

But accounting isn’t always the best tool for communicating financial matters.

Bar graphs and pie charts are often displayed in show-and-tell events in the hope that such “pictures” are truly worth their thousand words and will make the obscure plain.

Doesn’t always work.

There are many parables about communication and understanding that come to mind here, but I like two in particular. In one, the inquisitor asks what the time is, and the respondent replies with instructions for making a watch.

In the other, a group of blind men hear that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, "elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

The city budget is the elephant in the room and efforts to simplify its presentation and content can be difficult and tricky and insufficient to the task of illuminating its operation. And, like experts of all kinds, the people with their hands on the levers are not always able to tell the rest of us how it all works. This effect - specialized knowledge - is sometimes referred to as “inside baseball” in which the participants are so steeped in the details that the big picture is a little out of focus.

Square one.

Every budget shares the same fundamentals: Income, expense, savings. The city’s $685,032,232 is no different and those three categories look like this:

And what at first might look like the city planning to spend all its resources - revenue and savings - it is actually required by law to balance its budget that precisely. The city’s “savings” are its reserves and part of every year’s expense budget is a “payment to itself” that adds to its savings.

Expenses include “inter-governmental transfers” (starting to fog up already) and other accountability functions that are part of keeping the record straight. The bottom line is still income, outgo, and leftovers, just like yours at home and your boss’s at work.

Another feature that we all share regardless of our varied income streams, is a simple classification of spending: people, stuff, and services. At home, the “people” part might be as minor as, well, the minors and their allowances and payment for chores. In business and government it is the workforce and almost always accounts for the biggest share of the expenses. The stuff is the things we need to manage and enjoy our lives and the services provide tools and support.

The city requires a lot of each, including “stuff” like $125,000,000 for fuel and purchased power, services like insurance, training, and debt, and of course the people: 2,724 full and part-time employees at a cost of about $183,000,000. Those people report through a chain of command to one of 17 department heads, the city executives, who in turn report to the City Manager, who reports to the City Commissioners, who report to us.

And so it is our privilege as well as our responsibility as citizens to engage the city at whatever level we are capable of and to learn whatever we can about things we are interested in, and to develop an understanding that will help all of us make decisions that benefit the most of us.

The former City Manager, Doug Thomas often implied and regularly said “you don’t understand” and more or less turned it into a mantra at City Hall. And he was right of course, in the most benign and literal sense of the words, but he mostly used it as a club to beat back questions he did not want to answer. His use was not benign. But because it was literally true it often worked to subdue inquiry.

Tony Delgado is not Doug Thomas. And even though Tony took the position almost two years ago, he only really took the reins in November when the citizens turned back an effort to change the city’s charter and eliminate that role.

Four new commissioners, and as many as three more in two years, point to a new era for Lakeland in which the community, its government and management might forge new relationships and alliances that will bring out the best of Lakeland for the most of Lakeland.

The budget in all its glorious detail is available on the City website through the OpenGov tab at the foot of every page.

Explore it. Ask questions. Learn. Help us all see the big picture.

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