While Garden Grove City Council members are set to vote tonight on the city’s 2013-14 fiscal year budget, it’s still unclear what exactly they’re voting for.

Before passing an official budget, most Orange County cities provide a detailed, line-item draft budget that shows how much the city plans to spend on items such as police, public works and administration.

But the budget documents posted with Tuesday’s agenda in Garden Grove, the same materials council members will review before they vote, don’t detail the city’s budget priorities or include a breakdown of individual funds, departmental spending or other features common to a city budget.

According to the California Local Government Finance Almanac, there’s no state law that explicitly requires public agencies to have a budget. But other laws and stipulations for financial reporting in the state constitution and government code make practical budgets necessary to meet these requirements.

Organizations like the Government Finance Officers Association identify best practices and policies for financial reporting. Their Distinguished Budget Presentation award honors budgets based on criteria that seek coherence in an agency’s budget priorities and clarity of presentation.

Garden Grove does draft a comprehensive budget, but it isn’t released until weeks after the vote, said finance director Kingsley Okereke. “These things take months to put together,” he said.

Tuesday’s budget resolutions would adopt annual appropriations limits, carry over funds from this year’s budget and authorize more than $170 million in spending, based on initial estimates of revenue, grants and reserve funds.

The vast majority of Orange County’s 34 cities, even some of its smallest such as Villa Park, release a line-item draft budget prior to a city council vote.

And there is good reason for it, said Tracy Westen, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. The earlier the public becomes involved, the greater their impact, Westen said.

“When a city goes through a detailed budget process, they tend to be locked in and reluctant to make changes, because they spend a lot of time arriving at those numbers,” he said. “Late in the process, staff tends to justify [the numbers].”

In Garden Grove, however, by the time the council votes, the public will have had just five days to review the budget documents.

According to Okereke, the annual budget process simply isn’t a big deal for Garden Grove. While the council gives direction and their preferences, how money will be spent specifically is at the discretion of the city manager, he said.

Unless there are major changes, the yearly budget approval is more of an update than “a big production,” he said.

“You can waste a lot of time trying to do a line-by-line budget, but at the end of the day you handcuff yourself. You’re trying to deliver services in the most efficient and economic way,” said Okereke. “That’s the goal. It’s a flexibility the city manager should have.”

According to staff, this year there hasn’t been a need for budget workshops, because their initial draft of the budget has not changed significantly since the midyear budget review in February.

“This is a status quo budget —no surprises. There’s nothing new or hugely different from anything that [council members] haven’t already indicated their support for,” said Deputy City Manager Maria Stipe.

Contact the writer at thyanhvo@gmail.com

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