County budget process has required a lot of improvising


Published: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.

With two county managers and a relatively green budget team being part of the process, Alachua County has had a rather atypical budget cycle this year.

The Office of Management and Budget, with a staff of seven, had a lot of employee turnover earlier this year, including the firing of its interim director in March.

Growth Management Director Steve Lachnicht pulled double-duty and filled in as interim director at former County Manager Richard Drummond's request, which meant leading a largely new OMB staff when he was new to the department himself.

"It does slow you down," he said. "We were playing a little bit of catch-up. We had to figure out some things that were more routine to our predecessors."

Before Rick Mills Jr.'s short stint as interim budget director, former county employee Suzanne Gable headed the department and had a more hands-on approach, Lachnicht said.

Lachnicht, however, took a more decentralized approach in which he delegated tasks to his staff and involved them more closely in budget discussions.

This team-oriented style of management was necessary given Lachnicht's dual role in the budget and growth management departments and his newness to the budget process. He had to hand off some responsibilities to his Growth Management staff as well.

"There are some realistic limitations of what you can do between these two jobs," Lachnicht said. "I was able to step away and rely on people to follow through and they've done really well."

Lachnicht has said he can't split his efforts forever, though, which is why the county is searching for a permanent budget director to replace him now that the fiscal year 2014 budget cycle is wrapping up.

"It definitely has been a very good learning experience," Lachnicht said. "I've certainly learned a lot of insight into the operations of many more factions of the county government."

Diane Smith is one of the OMB's newer additions. As a senior financial management analyst, she has worked as Lachnicht's second-in-command since she was promoted in late May from her previous job with the Environmental Protection Department, where she handled Environmental Protection's budget among other tasks.

When she shifted to OMB, she said three members of the seven-person staff had just left the department. Today, six of the seven positions are filled, with the seventh staff position vacant at the moment.

"I guess I wanted to make a difference and I know that they were struggling with so many people leaving," she said. "I felt like I could help and so I stepped up."

Smith said that taking on this new role in the middle of the budget process was challenging.

"It's like being dropped in the middle of a hurricane and you're just trying to figure out what is the highest priority," she said.

When they developed the initial budget with Drummond, staff was tweaking things until the last possible minute. Smith dropped off the report at a print shop at 3 a.m. on a Monday in July and picked up the copies at 8 a.m. so the staff could prepare the binders in time for the budget presentation the following day.

Usually, the budget wouldn't change a lot after the initial proposal. But when Drummond retired and County Manager Betty Baker took over in late July, staff had more changes to make at her direction.

In another departure from the norm, the entire OMB staff tried to make it to as many County Commission meetings as they could to answer questions and to ensure that everyone stayed on the same page, she said. If employees weren't physically at the meeting, they were watching it online and looking up data as soon as the commissioners requested it.

Since so much of the budget staff was new to the office, staff all shared the similar experience of learning the process as they were plowing through it.

"We bonded through necessity," Smith said.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said having two county managers and a green OMB team made the budget cycle more complicated, but it had an upside too.

Having two county managers involved at different points in the process was challenging because they each had their own visions for the budget, Pinkoson said, adding that he thought Baker did a good job of walking in mid-process and getting up to speed quickly.

Meanwhile, OMB's Smith and Lachnicht didn't have much institutional knowledge of the budget process. However, Pinkoson said he felt that turned out to be a benefit in some ways. Things that a more experienced staff might have glossed over were reviewed more carefully and explained more thoroughly, Pinkoson said.

"... I think there was more turning over stones just so they could try to understand where the numbers are coming from," Pinkoson said. "I got some insight about how certain things were done that I didn't know before, and I thought it was very helpful to us so that we can understand the budget a little more in-depth."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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