Forum gives insight to the Augusta budget process

The Means Report

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) –  Continuing to educate you on exciting things going on in Augusta. We’re gonna talk about the budget for the City of Augusta in this segment. What is that budget? Oh, give or take it’s about $800 million each year. It covers about 2,800 employees and it can be intimidating. It can be something that we think we don’t know anything about. But you know what your opportunity to learn all about it is here thanks to a series of community budget engagement, forums. And Odie Donald is the administrator for Augusta-Richmond County. He’s been on “The Means Report” before, he’s no stranger.

Brad Means: Odie, thank you so much for coming back and talking to us today.

Odie Donald: Yeah, thank you for having me, excited to join you today.

Brad Means: Well, me too. And I’m excited that you’re having these forums. My first question is what made you think about kind of taking the budget to the public like this so they could learn more about it?

Odie Donald: Yeah, I’ll tell you, it’s the only way to do it in my opinion. We always talk about who manage who, who runs the government but a well-run government answers for the people, is funded by the people. And so everything we do should start with our citizens and business stakeholders. And so the only way I know to craft a budget that really represents our government and our citizenry appropriately is to really start with them. And so taking it to the people, learning about what folks priorities are as well as kind of showing them the tough decisions that we have to make is just the best thing and the right thing to do so excited to start. We’re going to the people before we at least present the administrator’s budget to our commission.

Brad Means: So I don’t wanna get people’s hopes up. I mean, I think it’s gonna be extremely educational but just let me know right here at the get-go. If someone’s watching and they think, hey, I’ve always wanted, I don’t know, a new building built downtown. I’ve always wanted a new recreation center built in my neighborhood. If I go to this forum and tell Mr. Donald that, I’ll bet you I’ll get one. It’s not, that is it? It’s just more seeing- Yeah, go ahead.

Odie Donald: Well, it’s not that but I will tell you it’s close. So what we do is we actually, we take the city’s budget. Let’s call it a billion dollars, right? We take the billion dollars and we basically give every attendee, not a real thousand dollars, but a mock thousand dollars. We break up the different budget categories and both individually as well as groups, we come together and we identify what the budgets look like. Maybe this table is heavy on public safety. Maybe this table is heavy on information, technology and cybersecurity. But we get feedback from everyone, both in groups as well as in individually. And what folks learn is it’s very hard to prioritize and allocate funds with a very limited budget. But what you also get to see is when you have different ideas, different priorities, different people and different needs. It’s not easy to come to a consensus on this is how we’re gonna allocate funds. So in fact, they’re going through the same exercise that the commission goes through when they make the final decision. And so we take the input, both from the forms that people fill out, the anecdotal feedback and comments. And we bundle all of those things together and we let the people’s priorities lead ours. So if we’re down to everyone has a flat budget, but we’re down to the last $10 million that we have to allocate, we really take all of the feedback from these community and budget forms. And we let that be the basis of how we allocate those resources down to the penny.

Brad Means: All right, that makes sense. And so let me ask you this, is their strength in numbers? In other words, if I want a piece of that pie, is it in my best interest to bring a ton of like-minded people to a forum?

Odie Donald: Well, it’s not gonna help because we’ll split you up. And that’s the real basis is that citizens would be connected with other citizens that they likely don’t know, haven’t meet and have very different perspectives. And so they won’t always come to a consensus. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons. But it’s also time limited, just like we’re time limited by Georgia law. So you have to make a decision within a period of time. And I think you don’t always get it right every time, but that’s why the good advantage that government has is the budget is a living, breathing document. So once you pass your initial budget, you still have continuous throughout the year.

Brad Means: You have an outstanding team down there at the municipal building. And so just to kind of let people know how a budget works, is it those department heads compiling their wish lists or their priorities for the department and then submitting those lists to you? Is that part of that process?

Odie Donald: That is and so the way our budget works, and this is new under me, apparently Augusta hasn’t done it this way. And so excited to bring a new perspective on how to do it. But we actually start with the commission and they list and provide us priorities and how the things they want to see within the budget. From there we gather our department heads as well as our constitutional officers and elected officials. And we all come together to, as you say, create the wishlist for each one of these departments. And from there that’s when I’m taking to the people to hear what their priorities are. And then a very small group of people in my office across finance and some other departments we come together. And actually formulate the budget and presented to the commission. And I think the one difference here is one, the inclusion of the commission at the very beginning of the process. And then also inserting our citizens directly. And from there we’ll have both anecdotal information, really strong data from everything from surveys to paper forms that have been filled out as well as these group forms. And we’ll formulate that as the justification for why we deliver. I think most folks here have called it the administrators budget, I call it the people’s budget. And so when we deliver the people’s budget to the commission, it gives them something very strong that they’re able to make the final decisions on.

Brad Means: I think it even makes it more than people’s budget because of these forums and these opportunities for people to have input, they’ll really have their fingerprints on it. How old do you have to be to go to a budget engagement forum?

Odie Donald: That’s funny, you know, there is any age. My daughter has been attending these and she was four years old and almost since birth. Yeah, it’s funny. Everyone gets to kind of at the end, hold up different signs that say what their individual priorities are. You know, yours might be education, someone else, it might be roads and transportation. Consistently, my kids have always held up toys when they’re holding up their signs. They don’t provide that but their priorities don’t change.

Brad Means: Yeah, I get it, toys and video games. I can always see those things being held up. What about trade-offs, can you talk about, like kind of pulling back the curtain to the budget process. Are there trade offs behind the scenes where perhaps one commissioner or department head or you, would go say, okay, we can do this. We can build this, we can fund this, but you’re gonna have to do this and help me out with this area first. Does that go on?

Odie Donald: I think that’s the biggest part of the budget process, and I wouldn’t say it should be done behind the scenes. I think we have those conversations very openly, that’s how I prefer to do it because people do have to understand, you know, you hear these huge numbers, you’ll hear a billion dollars or $800 million budget, 82 million from the rescue plan. But really that’s just not enough money to really deliver the level of service that we would all really prefer to deliver. If we look at just our infrastructure, if we were really to bring all of our infrastructure up to where we want it to within, let’s say, a three to four year period of time, we’re talking about 3 or $4 billion. That’s just on new sewer lines and improve roads and bridges. I mean, that doesn’t have anything to do with quality of life activity, public safety, which is so vital or any of those other areas. So we’re dealing with a finite amount of money for a very large and growing community. And so you have to decide, you know, that’s why you prioritize. If you have to choose, if the commission says that public safety is the number one priority, then that may mean that we have to have more officers versus adding on to parks and recreation centers. I mean, those are tough decisions. But when you have limited money, you have to be able to make those decisions. But what you get to do, which I think I’m really excited about is the budget is just your annual plan. We’re right now going through a process for a five-year strategic plan that will help us map out how we address those priorities over a certain period. So the budget is just one call in making sure that our government runs effectively.

Brad Means: Well, I think it is just fascinating to hear about certainly during our brief time together. And I think that the general public will find the same when they go to these community budget engagement forums. Odie Donald, thanks for keeping us informed and thanks for giving the public a chance to take part.

Odie Donald: Absolutely excited. Thank you for having me again and always spreading the good news about Augusta.

Brad Means: Absolutely, City Administrator, Odie Donald.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.