Community newsletter: Understanding public budgets and gearing up for elections

Article was written by Amy Greil, Community Development Extension Educator. 
Originally published in The Kenosha News.

In a groundswell of interest in elected office through the upcoming elections — the primary scheduled for Feb. 15, and the general election slated for April 5 — Kenosha County sees the highest number of contested races in more than a decade.
To my count, 14 County Board seats are contested (of the 23 total), six City of Kenosha aldermanic seats (of the 17 total), and a slew of local municipalities and school boards (another seven+ contested races).
To navigate this upcoming election, start by accessing and your local governmental units’ websites.

The most commonly misunderstood topic

Next I am exploring the most commonly misunderstood aspect of government as an aid to anyone running for office or growing their knowledge of local government as a voter — budgets.
From the University Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Extension’s Local Government Education Center (LGE) (, one can find open access a wealth of research-grade information like “Running for Elected Office” resources and, as in this case, public sector budgeting.

Purposes, approaches to a budget.
In the LGE Financial Management Series (Number 9), Local Government Budgets: Approaches & Traits are of special interest because the budget, for an elected official and conscientious voter, is the single most important duty.
Budgets are an accounting document (record and control expenditures), a management document (determines who can spend how much), a decision-making document (the basis for sound decision-making by council & staff), and a communications document (informing the public of how their money is spent).
Option 1: Line-Item Budgets
Line-item budgets are the most common format in that these connect and report information on inputs used to produce government services while emphasizing control and oversight. However, line-item budgets can create a win-lose approach, downplays trust, communication & flexibility.
Option 2: Program budgets
Meanwhile, program budgets allocate money to major program areas or activities rather than to specific line items. This approach fosters more centralized control than other approaches because these focus on program goals while examining all alternatives that may achieve program goals. Program budgets include revenue and expenses for an organization’s major activities.
Option 3: Performance-based budgets
A third approach in political discourse and debate is Performance-based budgets. We often hear a lot about this during election time. Under a performance budget approach, a program budget format is adopted to the existing organizational structure.
Option 4: Zero-based budgeting
Finally, zero-based budgeting organizes information into decision packages, i.e., incremental spending levels that reflect varying levels of effort and costs. In theory, each department prepares at least three (3) packages: A base-level, meeting the program’s minimum requirements, current-level funding, and an enhanced package — to address unmet needs.
Option 5 – Priority/outcome-based budgeting
Priority/Outcome-based budgets fund programs based on the established goals and priorities to achieve specified results. Instead of asking “What to Cut,” ask “What to Keep” that fosters collaboration, reduce/eliminate spending on non-performing services and provide greater tax-payer transparency.

Trends: Input, access and technology

Fortunately for new and seasoned elected officials, and voters too, use and application of technology related to budgeting greatly expands access to information and improves transparency. Very best to all the candidates on the ballot and eligible voters as we enter the next phase of community leadership.