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When COVID-19 hit Sunset Valley, a small community surrounded on all sides by Austin, TX, City Administrator Sylvia Carrillo hoped for the best but expected the worst.
As an experienced leader, she knew the economic impact of the crisis would be determined by three factors: 1) established state and local tax policies, 2) political alignment with Council, and 3) the talent of her team.
City Administrator Sylvia Carrillo had been hired seven months prior for her experience bringing transparency to the budgeting process, a key priority for the City. She was also well-served by her experience in crisis management. She was Assistant City Manager of Corpus Christi, TX when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017.
Carrillo and her team got laser-focused on the budget, identifying savings, and communicating proposed changes to drive the right decisions, while also teaching stakeholders and the community how municipal finance works.
Budgeting & Planning
In the early days of the pandemic, there was a lot to be concerned about from a financial perspective. Sunset Valley values its economic independence. Through smart financial policies, it does not collect property taxes by choice. The City also has very low fees for services, coupled with the fact that the State of Texas collects no income tax. Meanwhile, the impact of business closures on sales and use taxes was initially unknown. “The ‘no property tax’ policy is something the City is proud of and wants to maintain as long as possible,” explains City Administrator Sylvia Carrillo.
Sunset Valley has a committee for everything, which makes communicating around uncertainty and preparing the City financially even more challenging. To bring everyone along, the finance team sought timely and relevant data to drive the right decisions and proactive communications to help get the message out. A looming outlook of nearly 20% reduction in revenue was predicted, so the urgency was very real.
There isn’t great support for new City Administrators or Managers, Carrillo notes. “Even experienced managers are struggling, and the learning curve is extremely steep for those who don’t have an accounting background to help them get a full, clear financial picture.”
Carrillo was new to the City, but fortunately for Sunset Valley, it wasn’t her first rodeo, as they say in Texas. With both an accounting background and experience leading through a literal storm, she was able to prepare the budget and stakeholders for what was to come.
When City Administrator Carrillo and her team dug into the budget with OpenGov, they quickly realized which projects could easily be put on hold, that their per capita HR spend was out of sync with benchmarks, and where departments were not tracking spend for items under $1,000.
Getting clarity on spend — large and small — helped the finance team see where they could easily save money, and where they could initiate a targeted discussion around spending and saving. Rather than wield the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts, the City Administrator and her team are helping to inform tradeoffs for departments and Council and show what the opportunity costs of different approaches.
As an early adopter of OpenGov Stories as a platform for communicating COVID-19 related messaging, the City was able to communicate quickly and effectively to stakeholders and the community around the economic challenges and tradeoffs facing the City.
“Our ability to share findings and recommendations with OpenGov Stories made opportunity costs explicit and tangible, and in response, Council amended the code of ordinances related to Committees to direct the use of OpenGov for budgeting and planning by all City departments.”
Sylvia Carrillo, City Administrator – Sunset Valley, TX
The City is taking a more agile approach to budgeting with OpenGov. They are building the budget month to month, adjusting as soon as sales tax information becomes available. This responsive process ensures that they can accommodate revenue changes before they challenge the long-term resilience of the City.
With this approach and platform, Sunset Valley is saving one-half of an FTE finance position, reams of paper, and lengthy iteration time across teams as budget adjustments can be made easily in real-time.
The City was also able to make needed adjustments in an election year with scenario planning by telling the story of why they made cuts. “You lose people with spreadsheets,” notes City Administrator Carrillo.
Founded in 1954 by people who wanted to keep a quiet, friendly way of life, the City of Sunset Valley celebrates its independent identity and desire to remain a primarily rural residential community. Measuring just one square mile, Sunset Valley is located south of downtown Austin. Completely surrounded by the Capitol city, Sunset Valley is a place of natural beauty, with acres of open space and conservation land for native plants and animals
Budgeting and Planning
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