“City Government 101” is an ongoing series that debuted in April 2023 that highlights different aspects of municipal government as it pertains to Columbus, Nebraska, in hopes to provide information on how the City of Columbus operates. Please send questions and suggestions to ColumbusGovMedia@columbus.ne.us. Copyright © 2023
City Administrator Tara Vasicek still remembers 2017 when she began working with the team on the City’s upcoming fiscal year budget for the first time in her tenure.
“When I first started the budget that May, we would sit down for hours with each staff person,” Vasicek recalled. “There were no planning sessions with appointed board or elected officials. It was just me and staff going through things.”
Since then, the process has evolved by adding in productive planning sessions with the Columbus City Council, City department heads and select admin staff that start toward the beginning of the year.
In the spring, the finance department sends out the previous year’s budget with adjustments anticipated for the upcoming fiscal year. Department heads then start the planning process of determining what they consider the priorities for the next fiscal year before going back to the city administrator in early June for review.
“When department heads give me their budgets in the beginning of June, they know those budgets need to be representative of what those initial planning session outcomes were,” Vasicek said. “The budget is no one person’s opinion. It’s a year-long process of consolidating and gathering input from many, many people and refining it before ultimately being approved by the City Council.”
City Engineer Rick Bogus and Public Property Director Doug Moore said they appreciate how the budget process has become more streamlined in recent years.
“We have a lot of good input from department heads, but not too many meetings,” Bogus said. “I think it has become a much more efficient process. It’s easier.”
Vasicek, the City finance director and City Council members will also review the budget at length throughout the process before it’s discussed at Committee of the Whole and City Council meetings and ultimately approved in mid-September of that year before the next fiscal year begins in October.
“It truly is a year-long process,” Vasicek reiterated. “But is much more efficient now.”
A year-long process? Yep, it’s purposely extensive. Although the City of Columbus’ budget is thought of as one overall document, it actually contains many components that get no support from public tax dollars, such as stormwater and wastewater.
The biggest and most well-discussed is the City’s General Fund. The General Fund is powered by a huge mix of revenue sources, including taxes, charges for services, permit fees, license fees, fines and more. General fund dollars support general government operations and essential services among 22 departments, such as police, fire, parks, the library, community development, administrative support, the two public golf courses and cemeteries.
“The City doesn’t just run on autopilot. It’s definitely a process,” City Councilman Charlie Bahr said. “I think the staff does an excellent job. They understand not everything everyone wants can get done, so you have to be careful as far as picking what you’re going to do and, of course, the things you have to do.”
City Councilwoman Katherine Lopez said she has appreciated the extensive conversations with Vasicek and City staff leadership about the budget.
“You can tell there is a lot of thought put into it. The numbers are not easy to crunch,” Lopez said. “It’s obvious when it’s presented there has been a lot of thought and discussion. Tara, (Finance Director Heather Lindsley) and the whole team do a thorough job with the budget.”
In 2023, the City Council is expected to review and approve the 2023-2024 fiscal year budget on Sept. 18, 2023. Community members are encouraged to attend Council meetings (6 p.m. the first and third Monday of every month in the Council Chamber on the third floor of the Columbus Community Building unless a holiday falls on a Monday) to stay in the loop, ask questions and be part of the dialogue regarding the budget and other City-related matters.
“I would hope people who have questions can voice those, and hopefully, we can have a good conversation about the budget, how it’s planned and how it’s put together,” Lopez said. “I’d love to see more people attend.”
Even when the upcoming fiscal year budget is finalized, the work is never really done. City officials will get right back at it, looking back on what was done and how to move forward.
“Every year at end of budget at department head meetings we talk and reflect,” Vasicek said. “We look at what was good and what could have been better. Every year we’re changing and streamlining the budget process.”