Municipal budgets don’t always get a lot of positive press or public recognition. Still, when they do, it’s often a reason for celebration.
That’s the case for Farmington Hills, Mich., which was honored with the Government Finance Officers Association Distinguished Budget Presentation Award. To receive the award, a public entity must publish a budget document that satisfies nationally recognized guidelines for effective budget presentation. To receive the award, budget documents must be rated proficient in all four categories and in the 14 mandatory criteria within those categories. The award was presented to the Farmington Hills Finance Department.
More than 1,600 governments, including states, cities, counties, special districts, school districts and more, have been recognized for transparency in budgeting. Budget documents must meet program criteria and excel as a policy document, financial plan, operations guide, and communication tool to earn recognition.
Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that Farmington Hills has been presented with the award 37 years consecutively. Plus, the Detroit suburb of about 80,000 people was recognized for its work during a pandemic, which made things all the more challenging for city governments around the country. Still, according to Thomas Skrobola, finance director/treasurer for the city of Farmington Hills, staff rose to the occasion.
“The reason why we’ve done it for 37 years is because of a high-mindedness on our part to be leaders in local government and to adopt best practices,” he said. “I think it demonstrates to the public and our decision-makers … that they can use and trust our information because they’re done according to the gold standard.”
On that note, Skrobola knows a solid budget when he sees one. He’s been a civil servant for some time and has seen his share of city budgets and what works and doesn’t in the way of presentation. He said his past roles have shaped him and helped him become a more seasoned financial steward of the city’s finances.
“It’s the lessons that I’ve learned, and I’m applying to this job,” he said. “At this point, it’s directed toward understanding our numbers, our financial situation and setting up a series of discussions to help evaluate the city’s financial condition. That means talking to our decision-makers and experts internally so that we’re all on the same page and so we have a common goal as far as managing the city’s finances going forward.”
For instance, he said meeting with the city engineers and their staff is usually the first course of action, to assess the condition of the city’s facilities and make adjustments accordingly. For these conversations, he said the city’s facilities include city hall, police stations, fire stations, parks and other assets used regularly, such as roads, sidewalks, storm sewers, etc.
If investments in infrastructure are needed, Skrobola said the city looks at ways to finance repairs and replacements so that they remain in good, serviceable condition. From here, he said the city looks at its cash position — cash on hand vs. cash flow needs. Then the third step, he said, is to evaluate their overall financial trend: Are they moving forward, falling behind or holding steady?
“So what we try to do is try to get a picture of where you’ve been and where we’re going with regards to cash on hand, paying for infrastructure and facilities and such,” he said. “And then finally, we piece it all together, making sure our annual revenue and expenditures match up.”
Skrobola acknowledges there are other external factors at play that have contributed in the way of excellence in terms of the city’s budget.
“I think Farmington Hills’ success is overwhelmingly a reflection of the fact that we have residents who love to live here and who are doing well here,” he said. “So that’s why we have a strong tax base and a strong economy.”
In turn, that translates to economic viability and a brighter future.
“All that economic activity helps to create a lot of opportunities and increase the kinds of resources that we need to build and maintain their roads, provide for police, fire protection and other services.”
The city’s annual budget may be found online at https://www.fhgov.com/Government/Departments-Divisions/Finance/Budget.aspx.