Monday, June 11, 2018

[Santa Cruz County] Grand Jury: Santa Cruz County should use more data to drive budget, transparency

SANTA CRUZ >> After investigating county budgeting practices, the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury concluded it may be time for some updates. In a report released Thursday, the grand jury found that few county departments use performance data to drive their budgeting and that even when data is collected, it’s often done in a piecemeal manner that can stand in the way of clear comparison and public accountability.
How — and how effectively — the county government spends its annual budget of more than $770 million directly impacts the lives of county residents in myriad ways. In addition to its oversight of law enforcement and infrastructure in the unincorporated county, one out of every three people benefits from county health or human service programs alone.
The importance of efficient spending is underscored in the face of a looming statewide public pension crisis expected to hit local governments the hardest, with Santa Cruz County already preparing for “belt-tightening” and potential deficits in the years ahead.
The grand jury called on the county to embrace performance-driven budgeting, which is to say, set benchmarks for its programs and use them to figure out to what degree a program should be funded. It also recommended the county standardize its data reporting practices, add programs’ performance data to its online budget tool, and publish an annual performance report addressing whether each department met its goals ­­— with the latter two suggestions aimed at making it easier for the public see how effectively tax dollars are spent.
“The incremental process the county is currently using provides minimum program information,” the report reads. “Moving to a data-driven performance-based budgeting process will enable the county to better communicate and the public to better understand how and why budgetary decisions are made.”
The report also commended the county for working toward its first comprehensive strategic plan, which spells out the government’s priorities at both a high level and, eventually, in the form of specific departmental goals.
Jason Hoppin, the county spokesman, said the county is reviewing the report and will submit its response before the Sept. 5 deadline. A response is also required from the county’s elected Board of Supervisors, which oversees the local government.
Hoppin acknowledged there is ground to be gained in terms of the county’s budgetary practices but said a number of operational improvements are already underway, most notably the Vision Santa Cruz County strategic plan.
“Those have not had a chance to be implemented and really get going yet,” Hoppin said. “So we’ll take any suggestions under advisement but we do have things going on to improve county operations and how we apply our resources.”
The online budget tool, which the grand jury recommended be improved, is another recent example of the county’s push toward a better and more transparent budget, Hoppin said.
The Thursday report comes as the current grand jury’s fourth of 2018, with prior reports detailing investigations into the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, mental-health crisis response and assessing threats in public schools.
Composed of 19 county residents serving for a term of one year, the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury is tasked with investigating city and county governments and special districts on behalf of the public and publishing its findings and recommendations for improvement.
June 8, 2018
Santa Cruz Sentinel
By Nicholas Ibarra

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