So You Have A New Council, Now What?

October 22, 2018

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If you believe in the stereotypical accountant, you will appreciate the desire for workday stability day in and day out. However, when it comes to local government professionals, election season can create chaos, leading many to coin it as the “silly season.” Election results can precipitate hasty changes in government personnel. Government finance officers are charged with being the steady hand that stewards the public organization’s finances, but new councils often arrive with the new ideals and agendas that helped them get elected or re-elected.

While change can be a positive for any organization, the question is, how can a finance officer help facilitate positive change without throwing away progress made in previous terms? The answer lies in educating council members, including how you bring your new council up to speed on past progress and the priorities. Let’s review some of the key items every new council should consider.

What is your Strategic Plan?

By definition, a strategic plan is a document used to communicate the organization’s goals to all parties, the actions needed to achieve those goals, and all other critical elements developed during the planning exercise. Your existing strategic plan is developed through a collaborative process with the goal of creating and articulating a vision of where your community needs to go over the next number of years. Ensuring that everyone understands this overall plan is critical. Before your new councilors start to work on their individual priorities, it is important they understand the organization’s existing goals, so they can integrate their priorities into the overall plan, or work with the new council to modify the strategic plan. It is important to ensure all council members have a comprehensive understanding of the priorities, so they work collaboratively for the same end goals. A strategic plan enables management and elected officials to articulate how the organization’s progress is scoring against your plan, which helps build credibility around the strategic planning process as a whole.

How did you determine your Financial Plan?

In reading media interviews with council candidates, a common question asked of them revolves around where the community/region can refocus their spending. The organization’s existing financial plan is the product of significant planning and deliberation by staff and council. Few readers will be fully aware of all the factors that were considered and debated before finalizing the plan. As councilors head into budget workshops to review the upcoming financial plan, a retrospective review of the key matters in developing the last plan can add value for newly elected officials. Reviewing last year’s financial plan not only helps councilors understand previous priorities, but also allows finance officers to set deliberate expectations for the next financial plan.

What about your reserves?

Council members are frequently asked questions on why the public organization needs to increase taxes for a new initiative when there is so much “cash in the bank.” Understanding the need to save for future spending through reserve funds is critically important. It can be similar to saving for a large future purchase, but is unique in that local governments have many specific rules to follow in this area. To avoid misstatements and misunderstandings, council members should answer tax increase and reserve fund questions when they have a solid understanding of the reserve fund policy (how much will be set aside annually), and the strategic objectives attached to the various reserve funds.

What is Asset Management?

Although most people involved in local government understand asset management, we cannot take for granted the organization’s need to communicate the status of existing assets, future priorities to accommodate replacements, plans for growth and new technology, and the additional asset decisions in the near future. Large capital projects are significant investments for communities, and the sooner new councilors are versed on the issues facing their community, the sooner the council as a collective can move forward. Many people, especially accountants, view change with skepticism as it brings uncertainty, but having a new group of people help govern your organization can be a very positive occurrence for your community. Being proactive in educating new council members on the matters above will help them, and the council, move forward in the same direction. This can make a significant and positive difference in driving positive outcomes for your community.

Contact BDO to learn more about how we can assist you in advising and educating new councils in many areas, including the topics in this article.

Author

mario.jpg Mario Piroddi,
BDO Partner