5 simple rules for managing your police agency's budget

There are many effective strategies for successful budget development — here are five key rules to keep in mind during the budget process

Most police executives enjoy the annual budget process about as much as they enjoy a double root canal — it’s one of those necessary evils in running a law enforcement organization. We enjoy it when it is done because it give us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start a new year with new resources, but we dread the process of actually formulating the budget and selling it to our financial decision-makers. 

Successfully crafting a police agency budget is both a science and an art. Executives spend weeks — even months — gathering information, proposals, and costs and crafting them into a detailed financial document to account for every program proposed and the spending of every penny. Then they artfully go about the process of promoting their ideas — and their budgets — to those managers or elected officials who control the purse strings. 

There are many effective strategies for successful budget development — here are five key rules to keep in mind during the budget process.

1. Don’t Fall in Love with Pet Projects
In tough budget times it is very easy to become enamored with the latest program or equipment. There’s always someone within your command staff who advocates for that specially outfitted vehicle or the newest specialty-training program. 

While these are nice to have, be sure to keep the big-picture perspective when evaluating such proposals. When resources are limited and spending increases are unlikely, evaluate every proposal against the value that it provides in helping the organization fulfill its mission. 

Understand that pet projects and specialty items come with a price tag, and often that price is much higher than its stated cost in terms of the off-setting budget items that you will have to give up. 

2. Beware the “Workload” Trap
Heavy reliance on annual workload — or calls for service — to justify expenditures in staffing can be a double-edged sword. While this data can be useful in showing the need for staffing increases, there is also the potential that it could hurt you when calls for service go down.

A more effective tactic is to develop a comprehensive, multi-year staffing plan that encompasses all of the possible scenarios for officer workload and calls for service fluctuations, including crime data and population growth. From there, use your increase in annual workload numbers as a secondary justification to support your staffing plan, and any decrease in calls for service as an anticipated anomaly due to fluctuating conditions. 

3. Keep Personnel Your Top Priority
While we’re on the topic of personnel and staffing, keep this in mind: It is a lot easier to lose staffing positions than it is to get them. 

It can be tempting sometimes to delay filling positions or remove them altogether in order to make the budget numbers work, especially when personnel costs are 70 to 80 percent of most police budgets. When this is provided as an option, only use it as a last resort and, if possible, only with a written understanding that the positions will be restored within the current budget cycle. 

Most decision-makers will do their very best to maintain or restore public safety positions, but staffing promises are only as good as the political and financial climate at the time that the promise comes due. 

If the financial picture changes — or the next round of elections brings in new decision makers — it can be extremely difficult to restore what has been lost.

4. Under-Promise and Over-Deliver
This is age-old wisdom, but it’s true. Remember that budget decision-makers have long memories, and any past promises that are not filled will surely be brought to your attention in the next budget cycle. 

At a budget hearing, don’t make the fatal mistake of saying, “If you give me 20 more officers I can reduce crime in our city by 10 percent.” 

That’s a promise you will be expected to fulfill. 

When justifying personnel costs, for example, focus your argument on how you plan to use the officers or specific areas in which the additional manpower could be effective. 

Avoid giving assurances of specific outcomes. If having those 20 additional officers on the street actually does reduce crime by 10 percent, be sure to note it in your next budget report. 

5. Be Prepared to Paint the Picture of Proposed Budget Cuts
It can be easy for our financial decision-makers to look at the many different budgets they deal with every year and lose perspective on the impact of certain decisions. Reducing or eliminating budget items becomes much simpler when these items are merely numbers with little relevance to service delivery. 

In order to make the best-possible budgeting decisions, financial managers need to have the best information possible, including the potential real-life impact of their decisions. 

Be aware of which proposals or budget areas are most susceptible to potential cuts, and be prepared to illustrate the impact of those cuts. 

Reducing budgets does have an impact on service delivery and public safety, and it is the responsibility of the police executive to paint that picture.

In Conclusion
Ultimately, police executives must remember that the annual budget process is just one event in the ongoing campaign of funding and running an organization. Most agency heads believe that keeping good relationships with their financial managers is more important than increasing budget appropriations. 

When used artfully, these five key rules can help you do both. 

About the author

Barry Reynolds has over 35 years of experience in the police profession, including 31 years in municipal law enforcement. He is a leadership author and instructor, and owner of Police Leadership Resources LLC, which provides leadership training and consulting to law enforcement agencies. Barry previously served as a senior training officer and the coordinator for career development programs for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Training and Standards Bureau. Barry holds a master of science degree in management and is a certified leadership instructor.

Contact Barry Reynolds

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