The Anatomy of an Oil Boom and Bust

By | Finance Officer's Desk | No Comments

From pumping oil to paving roads

In 2010, Catarino “Cat” Castro had a great job working in the oilfields around Douglas, a city in Converse County, Wyoming. He started working for an energy company in 1999, and after several years, the company had promoted him up the ranks. Life was good for Cat Castro in Converse County. And he wasn’t alone. Converse County was a great place to live in 2010.

Although the financial crisis affected small towns to entire states across America, large portions of Wyoming remained mostly unscathed. Converse County in particular thrived on one of the state’s most diverse economies. While oil and gas development rose and fell throughout the years, our coal mines formed a rock of stability; the uranium mine’s managers were considering expansion, and the county’s fourth wind farm was about to come online.

In the second half of 2010, the Wyoming Oil & Gas Commission received 62 oil and gas permit requests for exploration in Converse County’s portion of the Powder River Basin. That number almost tripled by the first half of 2011, more than doubled again by the second half of 2013, and peaked in the first half of 2015 at 1,072 requests. By the end of 2014, 1,497 completed oil and gas wells fueled Converse County’s economy.

As national unemployment topped ten percent in late 2009, the county’s rate was under seven percent. And while hiring had slowed, the energy boom ensured the sector’s jobs still accounted for one of every six, and growing, of the county’s jobs. Those jobs — in the coal mine, the uranium mine, the railroads serving coal shipments, oil and gas fields, or the coal-fired power plant — were relatively high-paying, with annual wages averaging over $60,000. The standard of living was high; the cost of living, low.

A stable job market also meant a stable community with a growing population, rising numbers of children in classrooms, and – most important to the County’s government – a stable tax base. The County had just experienced its seventh consecutive year of rising revenues; although income was projected to be flat in 2010, projections for 2011 suggested a seven percent increase in property tax and sales tax revenue.

Property tax valuations surged, rising from $505 million in 2007 to a record $693 million in 2010. The tax revenues allowed the County to invest in infrastructure, roads, and employees. Although the County was in good financial condition, as the recession across the U.S. continued, economic worries began to surface.

In the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, the Commissioners noted, “County departments and outside agencies were cautioned during the budget work sessions that next year will likely see a significant decrease in valuation; therefore, the County will probably not be able to fund programs at the same level as this year.”

Those concerns never materialized. Instead, the county valuation jumped 18% to another record of $851 million in 2011, fueled in large part by the surging oil and gas play in the Powder River Basin.

The boom resounds throughout Converse County

Cat had moved to Williston, North Dakota, away from his family, to take advantage of the oil boom there. But in 2014, Cat saw the changes the energy boom was bringing to Douglas, with new building and new shops. Douglas wasn’t as busy as Williston, but there were lots of employment opportunities with oil companies. He decided to return to Douglas. Even though he would take a pay cut, it was worth it to be home every night and be with his family.

Cat wasn’t the only energy-sector employee to move to Converse County. Past 2010, employment in Converse County surged.

The impacts started with traffic. Trucks and crews began hauling rigs, materials, and workers along corridors in the northern half of the county. Highway 59, the main route north to Campbell County and Gillette, became the focus of safety concerns as the personal vehicles of those headed to the mines in Gillette sometimes collided with large trucks hauling oilfield materials. The results of these accidents were often deadly.

According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation, the Annual Average Daily traffic count on Highway 59 increased 43% from 1,720 vehicles per day to 2,458 between 2004 and late 2013. In a one-month stretch from October 25 to November 25, 2014, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reported 31 crashes between Douglas and Gillette, with one fatality and fourteen injuries. On December 7, 2014, the Casper Star-Tribune wrote that the Wyoming Highway Patrol added more troopers on Highway 59 to address “unsafe highway conditions.”

The traffic wasn’t just on highways and paved roads. When wellhead locations are overlaid onto the county transportation system map, it becomes clear that the majority of drilling activity was occurring in areas that were miles from any paved road. County roads that were lonely and rural prior to the oil and gas development became bustling truck routes, seemingly overnight. Bill Hall Road, in northern Converse County, saw an average of 5 trucks a day in 2011, 800 in 2013 and 1,300 trucks per day in 2014. County roads not designed for commercial use endured thousands of trucks daily; the County Road & Bridge department struggled to keep up.

Converse County’s Road & Bridge department expanded its workweek to include mandatory overtime. Their departmental overtime budget ballooned from $12,264 in 2011 to $31,696 in 2014. Like other departments and businesses in the County, Road & Bridge struggled to find and keep employees. If someone could operate heavy equipment, they were more than likely working for an energy company and making twice what we could offer.

Housing shortages became the next issue. The influx of workers drove vacancy rates in the county from almost 7% in late 2009 to 1.9% in the fall of 2013. Our school districts hired teachers to keep up with increasing enrollment, but couldn’t find them places to live. Hotels sold out every night; people filled every campground. Many employees commuted from Casper.

Elevated housing demand boosted housing prices. According to the Wyoming Cost of Living Index, apartment rent in Converse County increased 22% from the 4th Quarter of 2012 to the 4th Quarter of 2013. It wasn’t unusual to see advertisements for houses renting for $1,200 per month — double what a resident would have paid in 2008.

Rising housing costs were just part of the inflationary picture. The prices of fuel and groceries were also higher than in surrounding counties. As lines grew and patience shortened, local businesses struggled to meet demand and find workers. Suddenly, Converse County became one of the most expensive places to live in Wyoming.

Converse County responds to citizen complaints with financial transparency

Increasing prices brought our government more revenue. Countywide sales tax revenues doubled from $34 million in 2011 to $68 million in 2013, then rose to $89 million in 2014. Every week, the local newspaper ran stories touting the record production and county revenues.

In the November 2012 election, voters approved a sales tax increase to fund three projects totaling $31.7 million: a remodeled library branch in Glenrock, a new library building in Douglas, and a new branch of Eastern Wyoming College in Douglas. The tax was estimated to raise $500,000 a month for six years; instead, it averaged $1.1 million in revenue each month, paying off the projects in 31 months.

As the Treasurer’s Office began preparing to bill the 2014 property taxes for a record valuation that just topped $1 billion and the county began preparing a budget with record revenues and expenses, citizens grew frustrated.

Concerned about soaring living costs, upset with gridlocked traffic, and exasperated at the hassle that comes with living in a bustling boomtown, residents began asking questions. What was the County doing with all of the money? Would the County lower their taxes? How much were energy companies paying in taxes? When will roads be fixed?

Policymakers used to the boom and bust cycles of an energy economy were putting record numbers into reserves but struggling to explain that need to citizens who focused on the millions of dollars being pumped into the local economy. Although the County published a budget book with pages of figures that detailed revenues and expenses, citizens used to finding answers in seconds on Google were unlikely to scour a PDF budget book.

Interest in the energy boom spread beyond the county’s borders and even the region, as stories about the exploration in the Powder River Basin appeared on major newswires and newspapers across the country. The Treasurer’s Office began fielding several calls a week from reporters wanting more information about the revenues, the impacts, the long-term sustainability, and the changing landscape of the newly-industrialized rural areas of the county.

There had to be a better way to tell the story of the boom and to show citizens how the County was using hard-earned tax dollars to repair roads, upgrade schools, and encourage inclusive economic growth. We wanted a way to demonstrate both how the oil boom impacted public finances and that we were putting their money to good use.

In October 2014, we announced a partnership with OpenGov – a management reporting and transparency company based out of Silicon Valley. For the first time, interested citizens could see the visual, interactive story of how the oil boom affected County’s finances, including what revenue came into the County and where it went. They could see that although revenues doubled, so did the costs of maintaining roads, retaining employees, housing additional prisoners, and combating higher crime.

Journalists from anywhere in the state, or the world, now had instant access to the numbers they needed to investigate, track and spread the message of what an energy boom means to a small county. The County Treasurer began referring inquiries about the county’s finances to the OpenGov site instead of providing data verbally or emailing documents.

Editors from one of the largest newspapers in Wyoming, the Casper Star-Tribune, attended a county commissioners meeting to thank the county for the OpenGov site, expressing their hope that other government entities would follow suit and usher in a new era of transparency and accountability.

The OpenGov platform helped tell the story of the boom and how we were dealing with the revenues and expenses so that County Commissioners and residents could work through the issues together and explore what benefits would come from living in the hottest energy town in the state.

From boom to bust

Then our boom fell apart.

In June of 2014, fourteen oil rigs operated in Converse County and the price of crude oil was over $105 per barrel. By November, only three rigs were drilling oil wells in the county – and the price of oil fell below $45.

By March 2016, the rigs and workers were gone.

In the winter of 2015, the dramatic dip in oil prices caused the company Cat was working for to suspend all drilling. Cat was laid off. “It was stressful,” Cat says, feeling the immediate pressure of not being able to find work and watching the nest egg he worked so hard to build during the boom being depleted. He tried to find a job in the Douglas area but found it “impossible.”

The County’s unemployment rate doubled from 3.2% to 6.3%. And not only was the promising oil boom over; the coal mines that formed the county’s economic bedrock were also about to come under fire.

On August 3. 2015, as the price of oil crashed, President Obama released his Clean Power Plan that specifically targeted coal-fired power plants and set new emissions standards.

As the power industry redoubled efforts to transition from coal to cheaper, more environmentally-friendly natural gas, demand for coal plummeted. In 2014, Converse County’s mines produced over 33 million tons of coal. The Energy Information Administration estimates that coal production in 2015 was 10% lower than 2014 – and the lowest since 1986. Powder River Basin production in 2016 is already down approximately 28%.

The bust sets in

In March 2016, Wyoming’s (and America’s) two largest coal mines announced layoffs. Arch Coal cut 15% of its workforce, or 230 people, and Peabody Energy cut 235 people at North Antelope Rochelle mine. In April, Alpha Natural Resources followed suit and laid off workers from their Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines. By the end of April, the largest coal producer in the United States and operator of the coal mine north of Douglas, Peabody Energy, filed for bankruptcy.

Cuts in coal production and shipping cascaded to the railroads. Union Pacific announced that in the fourth quarter of 2015, they shipped 22% less coal than in the same quarter of 2014, and were putting 1,200 locomotives in storage nationwide. U.P. also shed 4,100 jobs nationwide, some of those in Converse County.

The economic damage was immediate. Sales tax collections that had peaked at over $10 million per month in February 2015 plummeted to $1.9 million in April 2016.

In July 2016, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services announced that Converse County had one of the largest jumps in unemployment statewide between June 2015 and 2016, from 3.9% to 6.8%.

The County’s assessed valuation dropped over $300 million, from $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion; and the Fiscal Year 2017 budget process became all about guessing when we would hit bottom and how to deal with a General Fund that would receive 20% less revenue.

Citizens asked questions – and transparency answers them

Citizens now asked how the County would sustain services, how far revenue would fall, and how the commissioners planned to prioritize expenses and projects.

To answer these questions, we turned again to OpenGov.

First, after a letter to the editor in the local newspaper asked where the county spent all the money from the boom and why more wasn’t put into reserves, we promoted the Checkbook Report that showed every check the County issued throughout the year, so that citizens could see for themselves where the money went. We saved views that showed the county spent over $400,000 to purchase and transport gravel for county roads and another $350,000 to a machinery company for equipment and repairs.

Next, when news stories about the oil and coal company bankruptcies created concerns about whether property taxes would get paid and whether the bust would create a deluge of delinquent tax accounts, we created a report comparing delinquent tax amounts for 2015 against prior years. The report provided visual reassurance that delinquent property taxes for tax year 2015 were similar to prior years, lessening the worries about budget shortfalls in the current fiscal year.

The OpenGov platform was also vital in explaining how and why sales tax collections could drop so far, so fast – from a high of $96 million in countywide collections in Fiscal Year 2015 to $26 million in Fiscal Year 2016. We published a report to the OpenGov portal showing sales tax collections by industry sector, so the public could see that the Mining sector dropped from $46 million to $12 million and how the loss of population and jobs affected Retail sales, which fell from $14 million to $6 million.

The platform became a method for the public to see the anatomy of the boom and the bust: a visual telling of the rise and fall of the Powder River Basin oil and gas play and the crash of the coal market.

Moving forward

Cat is now looking for work back in North Dakota. Even though he’s not looking forward to being away from his family again, he knows he’s got to go where the work is. His future in the oilfield seems uncertain. Like most, he’s hoping for a resurgence in oil prices, but knows the energy sector could become even more depressed, depending on the whims of the market.

Cat’s story is not unique.

Some businesses have closed; others are for sale. Some families moved out of the community to find work elsewhere, while others seek employment opportunities in different labor sectors, or hope oil prices will recover and things will pick up soon.

Long-time residents just shrug and accept the ups and downs as just part of the boom-bust cycle common to places that rely on the energy industry to drive the economy.

The County, like many residents, will rely on the reserves they built during the boom to ride out the current energy down-cycle and wait for better days.

As a bumper sticker on the back of an old truck parked downtown says, “Please, Lord, just give us one more oil boom. We promise this time we won’t waste it.”


Joel Schell is Converse County’s Treasurer. Kim Hiser is Converse County’s Deputy Treasurer. 


3 Ways OpenGov Maps Helps You Manage Your Government

By | Product | No Comments

Every day, your agency strives to ensure it serves the entire community. This often requires analyzing geographic information, using maps, to better allocate resources and track results. However, many legacy technologies are purpose-built for GIS teams, making it difficult for managers to view and create maps on the fly.

We built OpenGov Maps from the ground up to provide self-service analysis to everyone in your agency. Simply upload your location based data into OpenGov, and in a matter of seconds, you can explore this information using a variety of dynamic map visualizations. Here are three ways we think OpenGov Maps can help your agency:

Uncover Economic Development and Growth Opportunities

  • Analyze sales tax revenues using OpenGov’s dynamic heat maps.
  • Quickly discover areas of growth or stagnation to better plan economic development campaigns and resource allocations.

OpenGov’s Finance Expert and Sausalito, California’s former Finance Director Charlie Francis explains how “a key priority in government is to balance service delivery against revenues across residential, commercial, and industrial parcels. Visualizing this data in a heat map reveals areas that may require economic vitalization, enabling officials to optimize for future service delivery.”

Manage Grants and Ensure Compliance With Geographic Requirements

Many grants stipulate that grant funds should be allocated across projects and programs across the jurisdiction’s physical boundaries. OpenGov Maps enables you to demonstrate the even distribution of these funds, and communicate your initiatives to council, constituents, grantors, and staff.

Communicate Your Capital Project Priorities

  • Better communicate the status and magnitude of ongoing and proposed capital improvement projects.
  • Empower your citizens to see which projects are in a specific district or neighborhood.
  • Foster collaboration among businesses, constituents, and other stakeholders to better inform on the city’s priorities.


Maps is a powerful new feature of OpenGov Intelligence, OpenGov’s easy-to-use, self-service management reporting and analytics platform. Maps helps you better communicate about your capital projects, gain insights into your building permits, visualize trends in public safety, or analyze any other location-based data.


Secretary George Shultz Visits OpenGov; Talks Budgeting

By | Insights, Life at OpenGov | No Comments

Today, OpenGov was honored to host Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and OpenGov Co-Founder and Chairman Joe Lonsdale for a fireside chat with our Co-Founder and CEO, Zac Bookman. The OpenGov team huddled for an hour to listen and ask questions as the trio discussed world affairs and shared stories.

The conversation ranged from the expected to the sentimental. Secretary Shultz reaffirmed his simultaneous desires not to endorse a presidential candidate and to help the next president craft foreign policy. He also revealed a regret millions share: not writing to his mother more. A portrait of her hangs in the Secretary’s office.

Most of the talk, however, centered on a topic that rarely makes the front page. Or page two. But the topic enables effective, competent government. It puts uniforms on soldiers, repairs our bridges, and educates our children.

It’s the budget process. The annual or biannual cycle governments use to allocate public money and implement policies that citizens’ elected representatives enact.

As Director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1970-1972, Secretary Shultz helped craft the President’s budget proposal and manage budget negotiations with Congress. The budget process today is broken at all levels of government: the last time Congress passed all 12 appropriation bills to fund federal agencies on time was 1996. In The Coming Transformation, Joe and Zac write how “government administration and security realms rely on closed platforms with slow back-office processes and excess manual data entry.”

Secretary Shultz reaffirmed the magnitude of these challenges. Because of inadequate budgeting tools that do not enable true collaboration, budgeting power has become too centralized in the White House. Secretary Shultz explained how centralization over-politicizes the budget process, limits input from those closest to government operations, and prevents the natural inter- and intra-agency negotiations necessary to any budget process. He believes that, by making budgeting more collaborative and inclusive, the budget process can create a more operational instead of partisan climate – achieving improved operational effectiveness.

We agree, and believe all levels of government can benefit from better budgeting:

  • A recent article explains how Greenwood, Indiana’s Police Department discovered using modern budgeting software that its 2017 budget “did not account for enough police cars to accommodate an extended staff. Finding the money for the squad cars was much easier than it would have been before Budget Builder. ‘We collectively made additional reductions on certain items based on the past in order to accumulate money to buy those cars,’ [Greenwood’s Controller Adam] Stone said.” In other words, Budget Builder caught an error before it happened, saving hours of clerical work and a scramble to find funds in during the year.
  • Burnet, Texas used modern budgeting software to cut time spent on the budget’s clerical work in half, creating more time for the collaboration and strategic thinking necessary to craft and implement effective policy.

An excerpt of a fireside chat with Secretary Shultz, OpenGov Co-Founder and Chairman Joe Lonsdale, and OpenGov Co-Founder and CEO Zac Bookman

Imagine successes like Greenwood’s and Burnet’s across the world, at every level of government. These triumphs are what Secretary Shultz repeatedly emphasized will restore effective, competent government. This is the vision we at OpenGov work every day to achieve.

We thank Secretary Shultz and Joe for joining us today, sharing stories, and inspiring our team.


OpenGov Streamlines Budgeting Process for Local Governments with Launch of Budget Builder

By | Press Releases | No Comments

Government leaders report time savings of over 50% during their budget cycles, reduced errors, and broader participation using OpenGov’s new Budget Builder software

REDWOOD CITY, Calif – September 14, 2016 – OpenGov, the world’s first integrated cloud solution for public sector budgeting, reporting, and open data, today announced OpenGov Budget Builder – a smart, streamlined solution that transforms how governments complete their critical annual budget cycle each fiscal year. Governments can now use one platform to prepare the budget, report on spending against the budget, analyze other performance metrics, and broadly inform elected officials and citizens – enabling data-driven decision-making and improved outcomes for the public.

The budget touches communities’ most pressing issues. It allocates public money among competing priorities such as public safety, infrastructure reinvestment, and libraries. This process should run as efficiently and transparently as possible, aligning the current budget with the government’s long-term strategic plan. However, before OpenGov Budget Builder, technological barriers limited collaboration and forced budget teams to spend thousands of hours reconciling dozens of Excel spreadsheets, exchanging email-based proposals, and performing clerical work instead of evaluating proposals, planning proactively, and exploring alternative solutions.

OpenGov Budget Builder solves these problems.

“Budget season has always been an ordeal – I worked late every night, plus through weekends. OpenGov has changed this entire process, giving me back my life and opening up enough time for me to focus on other priorities for the city,” said Connie Maxwell, Budget Director in Burnet, Texas. “Gone are the days of digging around in spreadsheets and enduring lengthy proposal submission cycles. OpenGov has streamlined much of the clerical work involved in budgeting, and I could not be more grateful.”

With Budget Builder, governments of any size can:

  • Collaborate across the organization: Instead of sending dozens of spreadsheets back and forth, departmental budget teams can submit proposals and supporting documents into a central online system. Budget managers and analysts can then approve, comment on, or reject proposals. Managing the entire budget process on a secure, multi-user system reduces errors and enables all budget team members and stakeholders to stay in sync.
  • Save analysts and managers hundreds of hours: By eliminating the need to constantly reconcile dozens of spreadsheets in Excel, scour printed documents, and comb through email chains, Budget Builder lets budget teams and analysts spend their time focusing on crafting a budget that delivers the best services to citizens.
  • Integrate with reporting and open data: Budget teams can create interactive Budget Milestones reports to update elected officials and other stakeholders across the organization. After elected officials adopt a budget, governments can report on performance against the budget, manage budget amendments, and share results with citizens.

“The budget is the heart of the enterprise and money is policy. We’re excited to transform how governments do their most critical work,” explains OpenGov’s CEO and Co-Founder Zac Bookman, “With OpenGov, public agencies can deliver better outcomes through improved budgeting, accurate reporting, data-driven decisions, and clearer communication.”

OpenGov is creating the world’s first Smart Government Platform––the complete cloud solution for budgeting, reporting, and open data. With seamless integration into governments’ existing financial systems, OpenGov gives public agencies immediate insights from their data and maximizes the investment they’ve made in their existing financial systems.

State and local governments across the country are joining the OpenGov Network at a rapid pace; more than 1,200 governments now use the platform including recent launches in San Antonio, Santa Fe, and Washington, DC. Additionally, OpenGov has analyzed more than $1 trillion in revenues and expenditures nationwide, giving these agencies new insights into their data.

About OpenGov

OpenGov’s Smart Government Platform is the world’s first integrated cloud solution for public sector budgeting, reporting, and open data. Used by over 1,200 public agencies in the rapidly growing OpenGov Network™, OpenGov’s industry-leading technology streamlines the budget process, improves outcomes, and builds trust with the public. Founded in 2012 with headquarters in Silicon Valley, OpenGov works with leading governments of all sizes including the State Treasurer of Ohio, Minneapolis, MN; Maricopa County, AZ; and Washington, DC. OpenGov is backed by leading investors including Andreessen Horowitz, 8VC, and Thrive Capital.  Learn more at


Introducing the Easiest Way to Build Your Budget

By | Product | No Comments

We’re excited to introduce OpenGov Budget Builder, the definitive tool for smart, streamlined budgeting. Budget Builder ensures a collaborative, coordinated budget process by offering a central place for your departments to submit proposals, budget teams to review submissions, and managers to present the budget to elected officials. Budget leaders nationwide are already using Budget Builder to deliver results for their agencies. These early users, like Budget Director Connie Maxwell of Burnet, Texas, have cut the time they spend working on the budget by over 50%. And they’ve reduced much of the clerical work required in the process—allowing them to focus on strategy!

In her own words, “Budget season has always been an ordeal—I worked late every night, plus through weekends. OpenGov has changed this entire process, giving me back my life and opening up enough time for me to focus on other priorities for the city. Gone are the days of digging around in spreadsheets and enduring lengthy proposal submission cycles. OpenGov has streamlined much of the clerical work involved in budgeting, and I could not be more grateful.”

If you’d like to see how you can be more strategic and learn how Budget Builder can help you in your budget process now, then I’d welcome the opportunity to show you. You’ll see how budget teams at cities like Burnet, Texas and Greenwood, Indiana have already saved countless hours during their recent budget cycles.

With Budget Builder, we set out to build something from the ground up that would transform how governments budget. Now you can:

  • Collaborate across your organization: Instead of sending dozens of spreadsheets back and forth by email, your departmental budget teams can submit proposals and supporting documents into a central online system. Your budget managers and analysts can then approve, comment on, or reject proposals. Managing the entire budget process on a secure, multi-user system reduces errors and enables all team members and stakeholders to stay synced.
  • Save time and focus on strategy: By eliminating the need to constantly reconcile dozens of spreadsheets in Excel, scour printed documents, and comb through email chains, Budget Builder lets your budget team and analysts spend their time focused on strategy and crafting a budget that delivers the best services to citizens.
  • Leverage integrated management reporting, open data, and transparency: Budget teams can create interactive Budget Milestone Reports to update elected officials and other stakeholders across the organization. After elected officials adopt a budget, your agency can report on performance against the budget, manage budget amendments, and share results with citizens.

The addition of Budget Builder rounds out our Smart Government platform—the world’s first integrated cloud solution for budgeting, reporting, and open data. From planning, to operating, to communicating with elected officials and citizens, OpenGov enables you to make data-driven decisions and improve outcomes.

Want to take a look? Or even see your data in OpenGov Budget Builder? Request a personalized demonstration and we’ll be delighted to speak with you.

The Path to Collaborative Budgeting

By | Finance Officer's Desk | No Comments

Budgeting is at the heart of every government, and smart governance starts with smart budgeting. In most cases, budgeting is a mandated, formal, and highly structured process. Classic budget development often happens within the Finance Department or Executive Budget Office. Over time, most governments have developed sophisticated and elaborate budget procedures using either Excel (often with many linked worksheets) or complex vendor provided budget software.

Today, we all hear collaboration thrown around in lots of ways regarding budgeting as the process slowly expands from the central offices to include the broader management team. The Great Recession taught us we need to hear the ground truth from the people doing the work, collect ideas from everywhere, and iterate together to balance new and old practices. Getting the “straight dope” was essential when the details mattered and choosing among competing needs was most critical.

As the Great Recession worsened, it began to eat into historical revenue sources long considered stable and dependable. Traditional budgeting processes had difficulty adjusting to new demands for financial efficiency and rapid change as the financial pressure on governments grew worse. Surfacing solutions which would allow to governments continue delivering essential services with decreasing resources was a growing challenge.

As we searched for policy solutions, we found that we tended to have a more concrete conversation, gain new perspectives, and find solutions not apparent from the top down when the people who have to live with the leaky roof, cut back on open hours, or struggle on with obsolete technology get to defend and prioritize requests for themselves.

This is where we began to see some of our budget software’s limitations. It’s one thing to send out an Excel worksheet and ask departments to update their operating costs for the year. It’s an entirely different thing to ask departmental teams to reconsider everything they do and defend the money they need to spend on those activities. It is even harder to develop and communicate alternative plans. The budget process, and ideally the software, must help the government evaluate and decide among difficult trade-offs.

Despite our best efforts to streamline our tools and support, we still found ourselves spending more time than we should have in basic staff training on how to use our tools; and not nearly enough time on the actual process of collaboration and the intelligent consideration of alternatives. Instead, our focus was more on the mechanics, rather than the goals we had to achieve.

In my role as the Assistant Finance Director, I led the team which conducted training for budget staff, issued the budget worksheets, mandated the timing of their submission, collected and assembled all the supporting documentation, and created the budget binders that went to our executive and budget review teams. I staffed the budget review team meetings and updated the results. We presented the draft budget document to the city manager and supported him in front of the City Council. Once the budget was adopted, we produced the budget book and posted the details back to the accounting system. Managing this controlled and elaborate process distracted from and overshadowed the collaborative solution-seeking focus we were trying to achieve.

As the recession ground on and we went through this process for the second and third time, it was clear something needed to change. Instead of putting thought into discussion and collaboration, we were repeatedly forced to put the process in front of results. We were able to save little time for original thought and research. Once all the easy savings have been made and we were down to the to the bone, every cut hurt, every decision was more important than the last.

It was a painful time for everyone working in government, and for citizens who needed the services we provided. The lack of tools was onerous to me and ultimately lead to the role I took on with OpenGov when they first entered the scene as a newly incorporated technology startup in the local government space.

I jumped on the opportunity to join in and help design a new reporting and budgeting system, starting with a clean sheet, without worrying about legacy code and concepts. We based our work on the experience of experts active in the field, including our own hands-on knowledge. From the beginning, we built tools that are focused on bringing people together and enabling teams to better communicate, plan and think about their current work and strategic initiatives.

The working name of OpenGov’s just released budget product was Collaborative Budget Builder. Enabling effective collaboration has been our first objective since the product was conceived. It is designed to help governments achieve superior results through robust and flexible functionality that adapts to each agency’s unique needs, yet Budget Builder is simple to use, easy to learn, and respectful of the government staff’s time.

In budgeting, there is a long-standing paradox: Many staff members develop significant expertise in their fields. They may have great ideas on better ways of doing business, saving money, and providing better service to the public. However, speaking up during the budget process takes them far out of their comfort zone and into the black arts of finance and budget. Governments can open the door to innovation with deep collaboration using straightforward software, shared access to a risk-free suggestions platform, and clear communications. Turning the team loose to iterate, discuss, and come to consensus can result in a smart plan that everyone is poised to implement successfully.

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.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at

Shot of a group of office workers in a meetinghttp://

My perfect budget team

By | Finance Officer's Desk, Insights | No Comments

The budget process is fascinating. A complex combination (should we say collision?) of technical, political, and human factors produce a plan that determines how public money will be raised and spent.  

My first contact with any kind of budget was as a young soldier. Our captain (who was not much older than me) called us together and explained that if we did not spend our allocated budget this year, we would lose the difference and our budget would be reduced in the next year. With his prodding, we discovered a sudden need for expensive new radios and other high-tech gear.

I wasn’t in Kansas any more

Since then, I have budgeted in corporate, not-for-profit, and start-up organizations. I have balanced budgets in the face of indecipherable Federal JTPA regulations, stuffed-shirt corporate officers, and explosive yet poorly-capitalized growth. But none of those technical challenges prepared me for the drama of municipal budgeting, in full view of the public, staff, and Council.

There was never a need to actively socialize the budget process in the private sector. We drafted the budget, casually ran numbers by various people in operating areas, adjusted the numbers when necessary, and wrapped up the process. There was little concept of give and take, of achieving consensus or addressing any stakeholders beyond the Board of Directors. Our interests were fully aligned around controlling expenses, building revenue, and maximizing profits.

“Welcome to government service”  

“The budget means something a little different around here, and the annual process is just a little different too,” I was told by my new bosses. I spent a lot of time going from department to department in those early years. I learned that if I left a department head unsatisfied, his pipeline to the City Manager was fatter and faster than mine. I also learned that most folks did not know as much as they thought they did. In particular, acceptance of of a fixed resource pie seemed to get little traction.  

We had a gruff old Public Works Director who had probably occupied his office longer than I had been in the work force. He ran his domain with expertise and daunting authority. I remember him rearing back at a budget meeting and telling us his shop had given enough and it was time to “cut some guns and hoses” from the budget. Of course the Police and Fire Chiefs had some other cost saving suggestions for him, and me.

Experience is a hard task master, but I finally realized that finding some allies would be a good idea in this battle. We started developing a group of people interested in budgeting who could come together and explore the reality of limited resources and unlimited demands. It was a gradual process, but we made progress — expanding the envelope and spreading the learning and the budget process more widely each year.

Over time, I found that some groups and individuals grow stronger and more central to the budget process while others fall out of the process to varying degrees. While budget work is central to staff in a dedicated budget or finance office, it is extra work for staff in other shops. If their boss does not actively support their involvement and allow time for them to focus on the budget process, then they are put in an awkward situation.

Core team and other players

“Team” may be too strong a term for what usually evolves. “Temporary work group” might be more accurate for the loose amalgamation of people that get involved. Budget team members tend to have a combination of departmental needs, affinity for numbers, desire to be on the inside, and obsession with detail. In my experience, Assistant Directors, Analysts, or whichever title the number two person in each department goes by tend to have these traits. My most successful teams have been heterogeneous mixes; they represent every department and include a range of seniority and management levels.

In addition to this core team, there are two other “teams” in play. First, the executive group is often asked as a body to support the working budget team, and of course, are the ultimate arbitrators of the budget that is recommended to the legislative body.

Second, it is beneficial to have an expanded budget team of stakeholders outside the core process that includes representatives from organizations like Library, police and recreation oversight boards, labor units, and the general public. You may not get them together physically, but may share information and feedback over the Internet or at their own group meetings. Bringing these people into the process often makes it harder for them to oppose difficult decisions as they may if relegated outside the process.

Education is magic

I have tried many approaches to training teams and managers on budgeting, and every attempt has yielded mixed results. Some get it immediately, wonder what all the fuss is about, and want to know when they can get back to work. Others take more time. Sometimes they understand but are nervous about plunging in and need some moral support. And some just come to it more slowly — although they can be very strong because once they do get it, they really get it. They know how to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s, how to account for every dollar.

In the end, a mix of face-to-face training with Q&A and written material including screen shots has worked best for me. Shortcuts like memos and blank worksheets cause more cleanup time than what we would have invested in proper training at the front end.

One reason to keep teams open and flexible was the the budget cycle’s length — usually running six months or more each year.  People get promoted, move around, and are tasked with new projects and find interests over time. We learn best by repetition and iteration. An annual cycle makes the accumulation of expertise a slow process, and budget veterans a prized commodity.

So what’s the point?

The budget expresses the government’s vision and strategy. It is not desirable or realistic do it alone. Crafting a budget that supports staff in their work for their stakeholders is the goal. The budget is best crafted by a team working in the daylight, listening and learning broadly, iterating and testing ideas. The process will produce superior results, with a budget that is widely understood and accepted on the day it is adopted.

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.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at


Nine Lessons I Learned in Budgeting

By | Finance Officer's Desk, Insights | No Comments

After a dozen years building corporate budgets and another dozen years assembling government budgets, I have learned some hard lessons. Many of you may share similar thoughts:

1. The legislative body does not have the technical skills to forecast revenues and should not be expected to do so, especially since revenues are primarily the result of events outside local control. Finance professionals need to use their skills and experience to generate the most accurate possible revenue forecast for the legislators. They consider local and national factors, review historical trends, analyze current conditions, and project trends into the future.

2. The completed revenue forecast is the best professional estimate of revenue available to the budget process. Together with unrestricted reserves, these revenues are the total funding available for expense planning in the budget process.

3. Accurately managing personnel costs and their allocation is incredibly difficult, but key to accurate budgeting. These costs represent 75% or more of most government budgets so errors in salary-related costs can be particularly damaging — four times as distorting as the same percentage errors in non-personnel costs.

4. Expense budgeting should start as close to the action as possible. Line supervisors and project managers often have the most current and detailed information to work with. Equally important, they can best tell their project’s story, and explain both why funds are needed and how they will be used.

5. Budget leaders must ensure that line staff and the budget team are properly educated and oriented to both goals and methodology. Old fashioned line-item worksheets are less effective for organizing budgets than more activity-oriented budget input tools. Formats that start with the story and then encourage thoughtful expense planning help avoid across the board and generally less thoughtful line-item percentage increases.

6. There are many more line department leaders at all levels than there are budget analysts. Line department leaders know what they need; let them advocate for themselves. Empowering line staff to contribute directly to the budget process is a win-win proposition — as long as the budget team and executives have visibility and the final say.

7. The budget leaders need to understand the current state of the budget throughout the process.  Current revenue and expense totals should be visible, clear, and accurate. Access to every proposal and detail should be online and easily found.

8. Good budgeting takes time. Socialization, consensus building, iteration, political tradeoffs, horse trading; these are all common terms and concepts surrounding this inherently political process. Budget calendars and firm significant milestones help an organization move forward in a measured and orderly manner.

9. Taking enough time to reconcile the details and circulate the latest results at each major step is crucial to staff consideration and political buy-in. If the budget is not realistic or if staff know they will not be able to operate within its constraints, then the process is a failure and disservice to the entire organization.

As a financial professional, crafting a clean and functional balanced budget might be the most important and creative work you do all year long. It is the product of your many years of experience, education, and sheer hard work. It is critical to the functioning of your entire organization and its ability to provide services to residents and other stakeholders.

The things you do in Excel to build that budget look like magic to everyone else – but often keep you awake checking and double checking late into the night. The package of linked budget worksheets you have built over a career are effective and accurate, but you know that they are going to make it hard to retire someday. No amount of documentation and hand-off is going to adequately cover it.

Peer-to peer tip: Try out the Budget Milestones Report which is available at no extra cost as part of the OpenGov Intelligence platform!

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.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at


How to Engage Citizens With Your Budget Transparency Video

By | Customer Stories | No Comments

If governments could win Oscars for budget transparency videos, then Anoka County, Minnesota would be on everyone’s shortlist. The county’s video certainly caught our eye.

The project historically took Anoka’s Budget Department and Public Information Team about a month’s worth of work. But not this year.

Anoka finished the project in just two days using OpenGov’s Saved Views (links to views that answer questions) and interactive charts. OpenGov eliminated the manual labor involved in compiling information for every graphic in the video.

Creating a budget video brings at least three key benefits to your organization:

  • Explain complex yet important issues to citizens
  • Show potential employees that your government is technologically savvy
  • Give staff and managers a broad overview of the budget

We loved Anoka County’s video. You can watch it below, and by the time you’re done, we think you will love it too!

Here’s the structure that makes Anoka’s video so compelling for citizens:

1. State the mission: The video stars Budget Director Patti Hetrick. She briefly introduces herself and describes how Anoka County strives to provide services in a “respectful, innovative, and fiscally responsible” manner. Hetrick emphasizes how seriously Anoka takes the responsibility of spending the viewer’s dollars.

2. Demonstrate value: “During this video,” Hetrick then explains, “we will answer some questions that are commonly asked by our citizens.” Show citizens why the video is relevant, and they will pay attention.

3. Provide a high-level overview: Hetrick shows citizens how Anoka County’s budget has two main parts: revenues and expenses. OpenGov displays government-wide, multi-year expense and revenue data on the screen at the same time – driving the story and bolstering Hetrick’s narrative.

4. Use visual signposts: Anoka used Saved Views to signal new sections. For example, Anoka has separate Saved Views for “What Does Anoka County Spend on Public Safety?” and “What do we spend for Child Protection, Behavioral Health, and Financial Assistance?” These views correspond to sections in the video.

5. Contextualize each section: It’s not enough to just read off the numbers on the screen. Instead, Hetrick shares the story behind the numbers. What were the tradeoffs? Why were certain decisions made? This information helps citizens understand the numbers displayed on the screen.

6. Conclude with a call-to-action: Anoka concludes by directing citizens to OpenGov to learn more about Anoka County’s financials. This saves the county time too: it hasn’t had a single Freedom of Information request for financial information thus far and, according to Hetrick, Anoka would normally have around ten by now.

And finally, keep it clear and short. Let’s face it – people have short attention spans. Microsoft found the average is around eight seconds. The county conveys only essential information in its video; citizens can always go to OpenGov for more information.

Want to read more like this? Subscribe to our weekly digest for the latest in 21st-century government!


Finance Discussions at ICMA

By | Finance Officer's Desk | No Comments

Every year, governments across the country debate whether to consolidate or merge services. Passions often flare during these debates, as many of the services directly impact citizens’ lives. Making this debate as transparent as possible is essential for success.

During this year’s annual ICMA Conference, Charlie Francis will share how he navigated a Fire Department consolidation in his city. Charlie will provide tips and tricks for governments considering their own mergers and annexations.