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Why You Should Care About Your City’s Budget

Your city and town most likely just passed their budget for 2021. While it may seem like a quick turnaround, town staff and council will also begin drafting next year’s budget in the spring. The town or municipal budget is a reflection of your community’s priorities for the year. As a community member, understanding the budget and process will give you a voice in what your community chooses to prioritize. By pushing for issues you care about during budget conversations, you can encourage elected officials and town staff to put money towards creating solutions for those issues.

Below are some questions community members may have about their town’s funding and budget:

How is local government funded? Two of the largest revenue streams for a local government are typically the collection of sales taxes and property taxes. Sales taxes are levied (a fancy way of saying collected) on the sale of goods within city limits, such as food at a grocery store. Property taxes are typically levied on property owners who own property within the city limits. It is also common for cities to receive some federal or state funding through grants. It’s important to note that different states are funded in different ways, but sales and property taxes are common forms of income.

What is a city budget? Your city’s budget is essentially a business plan that outlines the services the city will provide and the associated costs. Every year, your community goes through a budget process where elected officials and city staff address what is important for the community to prioritize. Services included in the budget range from trash collection and providing water to long-term projects that address infrastructure.

What is the budget process? Most commonly, local budgets run from January 1st to December 31st. With this timeline, city staff and council will begin planning for the next year’s budget during the spring. More formal meetings will begin in the summer where all aspects of the budget will be discussed, and a draft of the budget will start to come together. These drafts are then reviewed and modified, and then presented to the public in the fall. Once all modifications are made, local budgets go to a final vote at a council meeting, usually in November or December.

Who makes the final decision for the city’s budget? While community members will have opportunities to provide input on the budget, elected representatives ultimately approve the budget. Once a local budget is passed by council, it’s relatively difficult to make budget changes mid-year, which is why it’s best to approach staff and council with your ideas, questions, and concerns earlier in the budget process.

Engagement in your local government budget process can be a valuable way to advocate for change or progress you want to see in your community. If you feel like government staff sound rigid about changes and modifications, we hope this brief explanation can help explain why. That said, if you understand the timing, purpose, and process of local budget planning, you can effectively work with government staff and elected officials to organize your community’s voices for change. 

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