But if the city decides to adopt it, performance-based budgeting could save a lot of money and position Haverhill for the future.
On Tuesday night, the City Council was treated to a presentation from five graduate students from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, who spent their summer getting to know the city.
Over the course of their case study, the MBA students interviewed department heads and other officials, as well as the officials of cities similar to Haverhill, evaluated the city’s current budgeting process, and concluded that a more transparent, inclusive, data-driven process will help Haverhill plan better in the years ahead.
The council voted to send the proposed budgeting plan to the Administration and Finance Committee for further evaluation.
If the phrase “better planning and budgeting” seems vaguely familiar, that’s because it has been harped on over the last few years ad nauseum by Council President John Michitson and Councilor Andy Vargas, the latter of whom was responsible for bringing the five women studying for their MBA’s to Haverhill.
Michitson said it was Vargas who won a pitch contest at the Waltham-based university, which brought free consultants to assist the city with its budgeting strategy. Those students — Ariela Lovett, Maria Bennett, Biructait Mengesha, Lena Muntemba, and Elaine Theriault — worked all summer and hit the council with their findings Tuesday.
Those findings weren’t new to the council, as much of the information was culled from interviews with seven of the nine councilors.
City officials are seeking more involvement in the budget process, more strategic planning, more resources and staff and, perhaps most importantly, more leeway to add to the city’s budget.
“The council has the power to cut from the budget but not add to it,” said Bennett. “Typically communication is limited between department heads and the council throughout the budgeting process. Often the council is voting on the budget without truly understanding departmental needs.”
Among cities in Massachusetts, Lowell and Somerville — home to several of the Brandeis students — have already adopted performance-based budgeting, they said.
Outside Massachusetts, the students consulted with officials in cities in California, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington state.
The students advocated for evaluating and balancing revenues from the previous year, expected revenue from the current fiscal year, and the priorities of Mayor James Fiorentini with key performance indicators and the priorities of not only department heads but also city residents.
Councilors stated their support and approval of the group’s findings.
“Performance-based budgeting goes back many, many years, when I was at Suffolk University in the early 1980’s,” said Councilor Thomas Sullivan. “Nobody was going to adopt it back then, because it was too new. It’s good to see cities are adopting it and it has the potential to work here.”
Michitson spoke in favor of the findings, as they reinforced a common trope of the council president’s: that, in the words of Bennett, the city’s master plan is “focused on economic development” and “there is no overarching strategic plan for the city.”
Councilor William Macek called the presentation a “really nice roadmap for the city” to follow, adding that the city should work to “follow the plan and see where it goes.”
While performance-based budgeting helps cities make better use of the money they have and ensures more accountability in city departments, it requires a lot of buy-in from top city officials, some of whom may not be willing to relinquish the authority they wield over the budgeting process the students said.
But Fiorentini told the council he likes the concept of performance-based budgeting.
The Brandeis group stated that hiring a data manager would be needed to crunch the numbers for the budgeting process. The mayor said Tuesday he has long sought a data analyst in City Hall.
“Originally, I wanted to hire one when I took office, but we didn’t have the resources then. Maybe we do now,” said Fiorentini.
The mayor added that he likes the idea proposed by the Brandeis students to evaluate the feedback given by residents through calls to the city’s 311 call system, which residents call to report incidents or problems they see around the city or to request information.