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Minnich: Leadership means listening to good advice | COMMENTARY

It’s county budget time, and there are all kinds of things that could go wrong. Number one wrong turn would be to ignore the advice of the budget director.

Ted Zaleski is the budget director. He is the smartest person in the room on managing government money. And he will hate the fact that I have mentioned his name here.

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He and his staff walk county commissioners through weeks of budget preparation in open sessions. For eight years, I was one of three cats to herd; now he has five. It’s always an adventure, akin to taking 10-year-olds on a field trip in a museum full of delicate art objects.

When I would say, “Listen to Ted,” he would reiterate that whatever we adopted was not his budget; it was ours. We owned it.

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And that’s why the current board of county commissioners would be smart to heed the cautionary advice of Zaleski and resist the temptation to use one-time financial windfalls to fund ongoing expenses. Money is available from federal grants during the current COVID-19 and economic emergency. There’s a temptation to use the temporary largess to either raise salaries and at the same time avoid a tax increase for mandatory expenses. Temporarily. Bad idea.

The federal stimulus packages are intended to get people through hard times because of lost pay, or more cash to spread around the economy.

Most of us are clueless about government budget management, but few admit it. Americans like to fully exercise their right to freedom from rational thinking when it comes to government revenues and expenses. For most people it’s as simple as cut taxes and stop spending (except on the things they want, on which you raise tax revenues by gouging some other group).  Easy peasy.

Truth is, it is not just like running a household, or a business, despite what the Republicans on the right like to say, nor is it akin to sponsoring a fundraiser with volunteers to benefit everyone equally in the community, which is the contention of many Democrats leaning to the left. It’s the art of doing both at once.

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People don’t make donations to government coffers, as a rule. That’s why we have tax laws, not tax suggestions. It’s why we have such complicated rules for staying out of trouble with our tax payments that most people pay an expert to do their taxes every year.

Therefore, at first glance it would seem that a windfall would give local political subdivisions some wiggle room on the cost of pay raises or the tax rate. But there are different rules for public spending than for the average householder or business. In county government, next year’s increase already built into the five-year budget plan, and when you raise the water level in this year’s bucket, and consequentially the next year’s, you’re spilling over four years hence.

And while no wage earner can count on being on the payroll, let alone getting a raise five years from now, the locals are at the total, annual mercy of the state on “promised” revenue sharing.

You don’t have to be a financial wizard to create a county budget, and common wisdom you’d apply to your household or business plan can be applied to a point. You begin with what you know — or think you know.

Know where the money comes from and be realistic about how much you can raise; taxes will have to go up eventually, just like your grocery and gas bill — and what you’ve already committed to spending.

Know that the unknown will happen, and there are inflexible rules for dealing with any and all contingencies.

So, fix the AC at a school or public building that has gone wanting for years, add or replace hardware such as trucks for road work, fix one of the many bridges that were overdue when granny was a pup. Add to the pension savings fund.

But listen to Ted.

Dean Minnich was a county commissioner 2002-10; he has been a writer and journalist since 1963. His column runs Thursday. Readers may comment at dminnichwestm@gmail.com.

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