By JOY BROWN - Findlay administrators want to restructure this year's budget hearing to have it focus less on specifics and more on service goals.

By JOY BROWN - Findlay administrators want to restructure this year's budget hearing to have it focus less on specifics and more on service goals.

But not everyone agrees with, or knows about, the proposed changes in how the meeting will be conducted.

The annual public hearing in December is City Council's chance to scrutinize spending requests for the following year, and for department heads to defend those requests. Typically lasting more than four hours, the hearing has followed a format where department heads appear individually before council throughout the evening and detail how every penny in their office would be spent.

Mayor Lydia Mihalik said she thinks the traditional meeting structure isn't as efficient and meaningful as it should be.

Now that the city has state performance audit suggestions that it is seeking to follow, and a strategic plan it is pursuing, Mihalik thinks those efforts should be paired with budget planning to present a clearer view of services the city offers and how they will be funded.

The traditional budget hearing tends to get bogged down by discussions about small expenses, she said.

"You get four hours into the meeting and people's eyes start rolling into the backs of their heads talking about the minutiae of things that cost less than 1 or 2 percent of the total department amount," she said. "With these marathon sessions, people get tired. They're human. Why not have a dialogue on why we're planning on spending X amount in the Street Department, and perhaps focus more on the services we provide in each department as opposed to the number of reams of copy paper we're purchasing?" she said.

Auditor Jim Staschiak, on the other hand, thinks the cost of copy paper should be discussed publicly if council members think it's worthy.

"This is the single opportunity that council has to see the budget in context as a whole group, with the department heads there, and to ask as many questions as they want," Staschiak said.

The structure of the hearing, and budget summaries that are included in a binder given to each council member beforehand, follow best budgeting practice standards that are advocated by the General Office of Financial Accounting and used by municipalities throughout the nation, he said.

Staschiak pointed out that one of the first pieces of legislation council passes at the start of each year covers department expenses, which are usually lumped together and total more than $60 million.

"What ultimately this should evolve into is how Findlay as a community wants its input assimilated into the priorities and functions of city government," Staschiak said.

Mihalik said her intention is not to limit discussion. But she envisions having a presentation that would "set up where we've been, where we're going, and explain the expense relationship to the objectives outlined in the strategic plan," she said. Council members would then have an opportunity to ask questions of department heads, who would all be there simultaneously.

"I see it as being a conversational discussion, as a way for people to better understand what we're doing and to allow council to better tell the story," Mihalik said. "We're not trying to fly under the radar with anything" or purposefully shorten the meeting for convenience, she said.

Mihalik said council members receive proposed line-item information from each department in binders several days prior to the hearing.

Administrators will ultimately determine how the meeting is conducted. But they'll soon be receiving input from council, many of whom think the traditional line-item format, with individual department heads having their turn at the table, should be maintained.

"I'm not sure what the mayor's plan is," said Council President Jim Slough, "but I've spoken with a number of council members, and they want to ask questions" in the way they always have, he said.

"Going line-by-line is very time-consuming, but this is their opportunity to meet with department heads and get a good picture of what's going to happen," Slough said. "It's on council's back if the budget is passed and there are things in there that are very controversial..."

"In my opinion, to really be able to focus on one department at a time is best," Slough said.

Brown: 419-427-8496

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