This page offers an overview of key aspects of a municipal budget and the budget requirements per Washington State law. It also has some MRSC-developed tools to help in the budgeting process.
The operating budget is probably a municipality's most important work product. The budget serves a number of functions. At the most basic level it is a legal document that gives local government officials the authority to incur obligations and pay expenses. It allocates resources among departments, reflecting the legislative body's priorities and policies and controls how much each department may spend. In most jurisdictions, the budget has evolved to include more than just financial data. Mission statements, goals, and objectives convey how budget decisions relate to a wider vision for the future of the municipality. A budget can also be an evaluation tool, comparing commitments made in the previous year's budget with actual accomplishments.
The Budget Process
All cities, towns, and counties have statutes that specifically outline the procedures for the annual and/or biennial budget process. These budget procedures do not vary between the different classifications of cities with the exception of first class cities over 300,000 in population and you will find a detailed explanation of these requirements on the budget preparation procedures for cities and towns webpage. In addition, there is an annual budget calendar for both cities/towns and counties that will assist with this process.
Tools for Developing Your Budget
For those new to the budget process there are a few tools that you may find helpful. We have provided links to budget development resources and tools to assist with this important financial planning document.
What Funds Must Have Budgets?
All cities, towns, and counties in the State of Washington must prepare a comprehensive entity-wide budget for all funds, including those funds for which appropriated budgets are not required and including estimates of the annual or biennial portion of continuing appropriations.
Typically all general (current expense), special revenue, and proprietary funds of local government must have an appropriations budget (An appropriation is the legal spending level authorized by a budget ordinance or resolution.) Debt service and capital project fund requirements may be met by continuing appropriations contained in the enabling ordinance or resolution. Permanent funds are often subject to trust agreements and their use is restricted by such. Fiduciary funds are not generally subject to budget requirements. Here are some rules by fund type:
Require a Budget
- General Fund
- Special Revenue Funds
- Capital Projects*
- Enterprise Funds
May Not Require a Budget
- Debt Service
- Capital Projects
Do Not Typically Need Budget
- Fiduciary Funds
- Agency Funds
- Trust Funds
* If the city does not adopt a continuing appropriations budget for capital projects it will need to include this in the annual/biennial budget.
Funds Requiring A Budget Appropriation:
- General Fund (current expense) – All general funds must have an annual or biennial appropriated budget. These funds set tax levies and are therefore required by statute to have a lawful appropriation.
- Special Revenue Funds – Normally, special revenue funds must have a budget appropriation. The nature of a special revenue fund is that the funds are restricted, committed, or assigned to a specific type of activity but these accounting restrictions do not eliminate the statutory budget requirements for a lawful appropriation.
- Proprietary Funds – Typically, all proprietary funds must have an annual or biennial appropriated budget. It is important to note that if you have established separate managerial funds for capital projects in proprietary funds you must appropriate on either an annual/biennial basis or on a project basis.
- Permanent Funds – This fund type is typically subject to trust agreements and their use is restricted. However, when agreements allow for the expenditure of funds it would be prudent to include in the appropriations budget.
Funds That May Not Require a Budget Appropriation:
- Debt Service Funds – Appropriations for debt service funds are not normally required. While Washington State budget statutes do not exclude debt service funds from annual/biennial appropriated budget requirements, RCW 39.48.020 requires that all resolutions or ordinances authorizing the sale of general obligation debt must include an amortization schedule that fixes the annual maturities of the debt throughout the life of the bond. Accordingly, the bond resolution or ordinance serves as a perfectly adequate budget for the entire life of the issue. This also applies to installment purchases and lease purchase agreements.
- Capital Project Funds – These may be budgeted either on an annual/biennial basis or on a project basis. The budget statutes for cities and counties provide that most appropriations lapse at the end of the fiscal period, but that the lapses do not prevent payments on “uncompleted improvements in progress” (RCW 36.40.200). City statutes are also explicit about the unlapsed status of appropriations in capital project funds (RCW 35.32A.080, 35.33.151, and 35A.33.150). These statutes are interpreted to permit project budgeting of capital project funds.
Funds That Do Not Typically Require A Budget Appropriation:
- Internal Service Funds – Based on the local government’s own policy, these funds are not subject to budget requirements.
- Fiduciary Funds – While these funds are not generally subject to budget requirements, there are some exceptions. Agency funds that are used to account for pass-through resources may require budgetary integration for adequate fiscal control over sub-grants. Additionally, trust and agency funds typically are not included in the comprehensive budget.
Note: these definitions have been obtained from resources such as the SAO, if in doubt about whether you should include in the appropriations budget or not, we recommend including.
Budget Types and Methods
There are several different budget methods used by local government to achieve the goals and priorities of the community. It can be said that local government budgeting has had a succession of methods with each one emphasizing financial control, management and planning in varying degrees. Over the course of time, local government has used line-item budgets, program budgets, capital budgets, performance budgeting, budgeting for results and outcomes and zero-based budgeting. Most recently attention has turned to a priority-based budgeting model which is based on building the budget around the community’s priorities. At the present time the majority of local government in Washington State uses a combination of program and performance budgeting.
Here are just a few resources that explore these optional budget types:
Differences between a Fund Level vs. Departmental Level Budgets
The budget authorizes and provides for control of financial operations. Upon adoption, the expenditure levels in the comprehensive budget are enacted into law through the appropriations ordinance (city/town/county) or resolution (county). Budget level refers to the level of detail as well as the level of legal authority that is authorized for expenditure during the budget period.
Budget levels may vary depending upon local policy, management practices, and the needs of your entity. These budget levels of appropriation typically come in two different levels. The fund level budget and the department and/or program level budget. There is a third alternative budget level known as the line item level however it is typically used as a management tool for monitoring the budget after adoption and not as a budget level appropriation.
- Fund Level – This refers to an appropriation level at the broadest level of authority. A fund level budget allows for the greatest amount of flexibility and therefore requires monitoring throughout the budget cycle to assure that actual expenditures fall within the various program or department projections that were established during the budget process. Fund level appropriations are typically used for special revenue, capital project, and enterprise (utility) funds. Depending on the entity, they may also be used for the general fund.
- Department/Program Level – This refers to a budget appropriation level that limits expenditures to department or program activities. During the budget development process the various program managers and department heads will prepare budget proposals that often fall within the same fund (general fund for example). These programs and departments may be appropriated at this level as a tool for managing the budget. In counties where many of the programs and activities are managed by separately elected public officials, it is required that the budget be appropriated at these program levels. Examples of programs or activities that can be appropriated at the department level are:
- Clerk's Office
- Finance Department
- Police Department
- Fire Department
- Economic & Community Development
- Parks & Recreation
- Public Works
The Definition of Fund Balance
The fund balance has different meanings depending upon whether you are using it for budgeting purposes or financial reporting purposes. For budget development, fund balance is what is left over at the end of the year after all revenues have been accounted for and all expenditures have been recorded against the lawful appropriations of the budget period.
Cities are required to estimate what the beginning fund balance will be for the forthcoming budget year or more specifically, what the “unencumbered fund balance” is estimated to be at the close of the current fiscal year (RCW 35.33.051, 35A.33.050, 35.34.070, and 35A.34.070). In the current fiscal year this is called ending fund balance, which becomes the beginning fund balance at the start of the new fiscal period (January 1).
Ending Fund Balance + Estimated Revenues = Funds Available for Appropriation
While estimating the beginning fund balance is a requirement of the budget process, it does not necessarily need to be used for appropriations in the forthcoming budget. Many cities have developed policies on how much fund balance should be maintained (see Financial/Budget Policies). A few of the methodologies include a minimum percent of the total expenditure budget (usually between 5% and 10%) while others wish to maintain a percent of revenues due to cash flow needs of cyclic revenues such as property tax. An important concept to include in the evaluation of fund balance is if all available resources are appropriated in the budget process than the cash balance at the end of the year would be zero and the fund would have to borrow operating cash to pay bills. Definitely a red flag and audit concern.
GFOA has developed some recommended best practices for fund balance levels which states that cities and counties, regardless of their size, should maintain unrestricted fund balance in their general funds of no less than two months of operating revenues or operating expenditures. Additionally the GFOA has issued a best practice for working capital in enterprise funds that should be no less than 45 days of annual operating expenses. Whether you choose revenues or expenditures for the governmental funds and establish a separate criteria for the enterprise funds will depend upon your particular circumstances.
What is a Balanced Budget?
A balanced budget refers to the budgeting concept that appropriations should not exceed resources available to cover these expenditures. Cities and towns are required to pass a balanced budget (RCW 35.33.075, 35A.33.075, 35.34.120, and 35A.34.120). The statute provides:
Appropriations shall be limited to the total estimated revenues contained therein including the amount to be raised by ad valorem taxes and the unencumbered fund balances estimated to be available at the close of the current fiscal year.
However, a budget that may fit the statutory definition may not be fiscally sustainable. A balanced budget for some jurisdictions may include non-recurring resources such as unencumbered fund balance (also known as beginning fund balance) to cover ongoing expenditures.
A more appropriate use of the term “balanced budget” should consider the concepts of a structurally balanced budget. The GFOA has issued a best practice for adopting a structurally balanced budget, which is described as a budget where recurring revenues are sufficient to cover recurring expenditures. The definition of recurring revenues will differ for each local government entity depending upon the financial/budget policy that it adopts, however it is based upon the premise that recurring revenues can reasonably be expected to continue from year to year with some degree of predictability. The same can be said for recurring expenditures. Expenditures such as salaries, benefits, materials, supplies, and asset maintenance costs are examples of recurring expenditures.
A good example of a project used to provide a structurally balanced budget is:
- Shoreline Ten Year Financial Sustainability Project – The City of Shoreline developed this project as a result of finding its staffing and service levels unsustainable. The Shoreline City Council then formed a subcommittee to address this problem and over the first quarter of 2014 held six meetings to identify options and alternatives which were then used to balance revenues with costs.
Governments should establish budget reserve funds to save money to finance all or part of future infrastructure, equipment, and other fiscal needs. Usually governments have their own policies and guidelines for budget reserves. The more common types of budget reserve funds are:
- Cash Flow Requirements: Sufficient cash on hand to satisfy cash flow needs.
- Rainy Day Funds: Provides resources when revenues decline due to economic downturn.
- Repairs and Improvements: Purchases for operating equipment and vehicles as they become obsolete.
- Capital Reserves: Provides resources to meet the objectives of the capital improvement plan.
- Contingencies: Funding for times of emergencies and disasters.
Links to Budgets
Select a jurisdiction to view budget links in our Washington profile pages: