Kansas City Hall, behind a fountain and with trees to the left and right.
The Kansas City Council will discuss the proposed budget at City Hall meetings in February and March before going to a vote on March 23. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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Do you wonder whether your local government is prioritizing the things that are important to you, like policing, affordable housing, walkability or public health?

Official budget documents offer a peek into what elected officials are prioritizing. The budget outlines how much money the city or county plans to spend in every department, and it’s reported in what are typically lengthy 600-to-1,000 page documents.

But don’t be discouraged by the length of the budget document. In this guide, you’ll learn where to look first to get a quick overview of the budget’s key points, as well as some of the key terminology that will help you understand what it means.

You can use what you learn to speak up at government meetings. Public hearings are coming up this week for Jackson County and next month for Kansas City, Missouri, and officials are looking for public input into whether the budget’s priorities align with the people they represent.

The introductory letter usually offers a quick summary

If he had only a few minutes to review a 700-page budget, former Kansas City Manager Robert Collins said he would start by reading the transmittal letter. 

The transmittal letter appears at the opening of the budget document, providing a short, easy-to-read summary of notable changes from the previous year, addressed to the city council. 

“That will explain both what the budget is and how much it is, and any changes from the previous year,” said Collins, who now serves as the vice president of Collins Noteis & Associates, a firm that assists in urban planning and government projects. “And that’s the first place to look because that gives you an overall impression of whether it’s a good year or bad year, and what the challenges are going to be in that budget.”

For example, last year’s transmittal letter for the Kansas City budget highlighted an increase in sales tax revenue and flagged a few new expenses, such as $250,000 for tree planting and $2.5 million for KC’s Right to Counsel program for tenants. 

The Wyandotte County Unified Government and Johnson County Commission have introductory letters – much like executive summaries – that convey similar messages. The introductory letter for Johnson County’s budget highlights seven new positions in the sheriff’s office and concerns with inflation in construction costs.

Basic definitions

All department expenses for Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson County, Johnson County and the Wyandotte County Unified Government break down into five categories using similar terminology: personal services, contractual services, capital outlay, debt service and commodities.

  • Personal services include wages, salaries and benefits for employees. 
  • Contractual services are expenses related to contracts, such as construction or operations handled by nongovernment employees.
  • Capital outlay includes improvements and equipment upgrades or repairs, which are meant to make the government’s assets last longer. 
  • Debt service includes payments on the city’s loans and bonds.
  • Commodities is a broad category that includes the things a department is buying. This can include a range of things, from asphalt and gasoline to highlighters and paper towels.

What can actually be changed?

In every budget, the majority of spending is already locked in place for debt repayments, salaries and benefits and enterprise funds. This usually leaves around 10% to 20% of the budget up for debate each year.

If a department uses an enterprise fund, that means that the department’s revenue is used to pay for its own services, similar to a business. For example, the water department collects fees that must be used to pay for water service — this money cannot be budgeted for any other purpose. Other examples include the airport and sewage.

Other departments, such as the fire department, use a larger portion of their budget for personnel. As a result, it can be difficult to move money away from these departments without laying off employees or cutting benefits.

“Generally, all of that is going to take up 80–90% of a budget,” Collins said. “Kansas City’s budget is probably going to be almost $2 billion this coming year. That sounds like a lot, but when it comes down to it, they’re arguing over a couple hundred million (dollars).”

The business plan includes what the city hopes to accomplish

But public input can be valuable when it comes to Kansas City’s business plan, which outlines goals for the fiscal year.

“The business plan is based upon what the council views as their priorities for the future,” Collins said. “It lays out things that they want to accomplish, things that they believe that the community is focused on.”

This is a place where public hearings can have an actual effect on what the final plan looks like, and Collins said that this can be a great way for constituents to voice their big-picture priorities without needing to have as much specific accounting knowledge.

“It’s important for someone looking at the budget to understand whether or not your priorities are allocated (for) in the budget and whether or not there’s enough in there to accomplish the goals that you’ve got,” Collins said.

Last year’s business plan for Kansas City included goals like increasing affordable housing supply, developing sustainable infrastructure and using plain language in city communications.

How to find the budgets for KC-area local governments

Jackson County, Missouri — Public hearings for this year’s budget are happening this week, on Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Red Bridge branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library. The budget must be approved by Jan. 31.

Kansas City, Missouri — The city manager will present the budget to City Council on Feb. 9, 2023. The adoption vote will occur on March 23.

Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas — Public budget hearings begin in March, with workshops throughout the summer. The budget must be approved by Oct. 1.

Overland Park, Kansas — Public budget hearings begin in April. The city manager submits the budget in June, with another public hearing in August before it’s adopted.

Johnson County, Kansas — The budget process takes place from January to August, and the budget calendar varies from year to year. This year’s budget was presented to the county commission on Sept. 2, 2022.

Clay County, Missouri — This year’s budget was presented on Nov. 16, 2022, and adopted on Jan. 11.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....