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FISCAL PLANS START AT 0

Mayoral candidates pledge to implement some form of zero-based budgeting.

The City Council approved its $207 million general budget last week in just under two hours.

Don't expect such a smooth process next year.

Mayoral candidates Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford vow to drastically change the way the city allocates public dollars. They want to require city employees to justify every expense as a way to save money and produce a more efficient City Hall.

Their proposals have raised eyebrows at City Hall, where employees fear the already tedious process is about to get even longer - without realizing any of the promised benefits.

"Budgeting is an important planning tool and it has to be done," said Deputy Mayor Tish Elston, "But to spend more effort on that than getting the work of the department done, you have to have that appropriate amount of balance."

Ford and Foster both want to implement intensive budgeting methods that could require extensive staff time and discussions about basic expenses.

Right now, the city typically begins a new budget by giving programs the same amount they had the year before.

Ford, a lawyer, said she would eventually implement citywide zero-based budgeting, a process that requires ranking and prioritizing programs and activities before any services are funded.

"As mayor, I will prioritize our city services," said Ford, 52. "Public safety will be the city's top priority."

Foster, a lawyer, said he will require staff to defend and prioritize every city program, line item and expense - every other year.

"We have to do more with less and the only way I can think of to do that is to cut certain things that represent wants over needs," said Foster, 46.

Instead of starting at zero, Foster's plan calls for budgets to be built around a percentage of last year's expenses. The percentage could change from year to year based on city needs. For example, a department would receive 70 percent of the previous year's spending. That could cover salaries and supplies; anything more would have to be justified.

City employees also would need to rank each expense or program from most effective and beneficial to the least. The least effective items would be reduced or eliminated.

The candidates say their plans will help improve transparency at City Hall and are worth the extra time if it means tax dollars are spent more wisely.

Their ideas are not new.

St. Petersburg was one of the first cities in the nation to adopt a form of zero-based budgeting in the 1970s, as various versions of the rigorous spending philosophy became fashionable in government accounting.

Some City Hall managers resisted because they didn't like keeping track of their daily activities and expenses, said Jamil Jreisat, a public administration professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa who studied St. Petersburg at the time.

The city discovered a handful of employees who had learned to game the system, by inflating their performance ratings to get more funding, he said.

The city gradually reverted to its current system of incremental budgeting that is based on previous year spending.

Still, he and other fiscal watchdog groups say there are many benefits to zero-based budgeting.

"The pros are enormous," Jreisat said. "How can we know what you are doing unless we know the quantity or quality of your performance? If you cannot measure it, you can not manage it."

Citrus County moved to a form of zero-based budgeting in 2008. A third of the county's budget is closely scrutinized every year.

"It helps you prioritize," said budget director Cathy Taylor. "You can divide the programs into what are essential services and what services could be reduced."

Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy for the conservative Michigan think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy, would take it a step further.

He said governments should hire independent auditors periodically to determine which expenses are unnecessary.

LaFaive said Foster's flexible budgeting plan might not make much of a difference. "It just sounds like there is way too much latitude built in," he said.

He said Ford's plan to eventually review each department every year could be a waste of time. "I found it is only practical if you take a small bite out of the apple at a time," he said. "My sense is you are just not going to be able to dig deep enough."

Elston, who served as the city's budget director from 1988 to 1998, said employees already justify their expenses in private meetings. Switching to a more public process might be less productive, she said.

Rodney Clouser, a public policy professor at the University of Florida, said zero-based budgeting likely won't deter wasteful spending.

"Zero-based budgeting says you are going to build a budget each and every year," he said. "It doesn't necessarily say you are going to spend less."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Web tease

Read more about the St. Petersburg mayoral candidates at elections.tampabay.com.

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