Form Follows Function, Now the Ulster County Budget

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

Legendary Chicago School architect Louis Sullivan was famed for his aphorism: “Form ever follows function.” This was true, Sullivan said, in the natural environment, “whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, [or] the winding stream.” It should be true too, he averred, for all things people designed and created, from steel ribbed skyscrapers to pots, pans and kitchen utensils. 

And, I would add, county budgets.

For a decade or more the Benjamin Center has been urging Ulster County leadership to change the form of the county budget to enhance its understandability and transparency. The goals? Create a better management tool for those within government and help citizens to more easily hold the county accountable for its performance. We have advocated for “outcome oriented budgets, often called performance-based budgets (PBB), …[with]….mission statements, mission-related goals, plans to accomplish them and results-oriented performance measures.” Most recently, in our review of the 2019 executive budget for the county legislature we noted: “It is long past time for Ulster County to move away from traditional line-item budgeting to performance-based budgeting.”

Unfortunately, the bad news is that the county legislature has repeatedly ignored our recommendation in its routinely desultory oversight during the budget adoption process. The good news is that this year, under County Executive Pat Ryan, the executive branch has begun to pay attention.

For the first time this year the Ulster County budget includes a page for each department that includes an organization chart, expenditure and revenue highlights, a mission and vision statement and a list of principal functions. By comparison, below, see a snapshot from the Health Department’s budgeting in 2020, and how opaque that format is (you can dig deeper, here), vs. how the Executive Budget for 2021 reveals not only costs but, by giving the public the organizational hierarchy, a window into understanding budgetary obligations, priorities, and what may be at risk if the state cuts funding by as much as 20 percent.

The change in the formatting of our county budget suggests that the Ryan administration is planning, or at least considering, what the Benjamin Center has long encouraged. The county executive appears to want to make the budget both a key management tool and a resource for constiuents and other elected officials to hold their government more accountable.

Hooray!

But this will require at least two additional changes to the budget document: establishment of clear, measurable performance goals for county departments and reporting of spending by function within departments.  

One more illustrative example: County Comptroller March Gallagher reported in her just released Popular Annual Financial Report that the county Health Department made 1,872 food safety inspections last year. This department’s budget is currently one of those most organized by function in Ulster County. But currently we can’t tell from that budget how much it cost to do these inspections, or the extent to which they were effective in protecting public health. Nor can we calculate from the budget the average cost of an inspection, the trend in this cost over time or how it compares to that for the same function in other New York counties. To do this we need a budget fully organized by function, with agreed upon measurable goals for each function in the budget and set metrics of performance and results.

This year’s first step is another example of an important good government reform by the current county administration, taken even in the midst of a preoccupying crisis. As we enter the winter, with the pandemic’s challenging second wave and the attendant fiscal crisis upon us, and then as we begin to prepare as we must for the next fiscal year, the county must persist in its commitment to reform, and take the needed next steps outlined here to join form and function for modern, accountable budgeting.


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