It feels good getting the numbers right
March 1, 2016
I ran into a former associate at a library fundraiser the other night. Bob and I are both retired from government service, and were never close, but we worked together on the City budget for several years. Our bond strengthened as we went through the Great Recession and it’s aftermath.
Bob was the Assistant Library Director in those days, and knew where all the bodies were buried. Libraries are much larger and more complex operations than you might think, just looking in from the outside.
Among Bob’s many responsibilities, he was in charge of getting the library’s operating and capital budgets approved each year, not a job for the faint-hearted. Like every other operating department, library management had to clear its budget through our central offices: the finance department, budget committee, and city manager’s office.
However, Bob had a another approval process to deal with. At the same time he presented his budget plan to the City, he also presented it to the quasi-independent library board for its input and approval. This was not a quiet acquiescent body by any means. The board’s members were knowledgeable and opinionated local residents with deep subject knowledge. They were appointed by the City Council to act as the Library’s independent overseers. One was subsequently elected Mayor of our fine city.
I helped Bob present the budget one year, and it was as difficult as any Council presentation, with the added twist that this body was determined to get its fair share of the City’s entire budget. They explained the library’s important role in the community, covering everything from mom-and-tot reading circles to senior centers, afterschool programs, homeless day care, and the public web library.
On top of the external pressure, Bob was one of those naturally compulsive perfectionists that accountants love and respect. When I think about how exacting budgeting can be, and the importance of getting the numbers right, I often remember working with Bob. He would actually be embarrassed sometimes to come over with yet another version of his numbers and ask me to plug them into the master worksheet or revise personnel costs for some change in the staffing model.
Bob also joined the City budget team and made major contributions to the overall effort, adding technical skills, enthusiasm and commitment. He certainly never forgot what department he worked for, but approached the total city-wide budget puzzle in an open fair-minded way, looking for the best solutions for the moment and the future.
Over the years, we got better at our work, our budget team matured, our Excel worksheets grew more robust, and our procedures improved. We developed insights into which approaches worked, the Council’s appetites and sensitivities, what documentation and arguments were needed to advance an idea.
In many ways, over those years, Bob became my foil, my model budgeteer. When I wrote instructions or improved a worksheet I would ask myself if this would work for Bob. Then when I had a draft ready, I would ask him the same question.
Each year we ended up with a budget that the library staff, patrons and board could live with, and even found room to advance their most important priorities. I doubt that any of those groups had any real appreciation for how hard Bod sweated the details on their behalf. And maybe that is as it should be. Bob is a professional always worked at that level.
When Bob and I shook hands that evening he told me that he enjoyed working with me those difficult years. More than that, he told me something that only an accountant might understand in his bones: That he remembers how good it felt each year “just to get the numbers right,” to hit his spending target, get his complete budget in balance, and properly account for every dollar.
Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S. in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from CSUMB.
Category: Government Finance