The East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Budget-in-Brief initiative was a 2020 GFOA Awards for Excellence Winner in the Exceptionally Well Implemented GFOA Best Practice category. GFOA’s Awards for Excellence in Government Finance recognize innovative programs and contributions to the practice of government finance that exemplify outstanding financial management. The awards stress practical, documented work that offers leadership to the profession and promotes improved public finance.
East Bay Utility Creates a Small Document with a Big Educational Payoff
Like many other public agencies, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD) is experiencing increasing pressure for financial data transparency. Although the biennial budget document presents an extensive amount of budgetary and financial data, non-financial readers can find it difficult to understand rate increases. Field staff also indicated that they are often approached by members of the public who have questions about the budget and billing rates, but they find themselves unable to provide informative answers. To address this situation, budget staff designed and developed a biennial budget summary in brochure format—known as the Budget-in-Brief—to promote transparency, better inform the public, and draw direct connections between the district’s charges and the services it provides.
Steps to Preparing the Budget-in-Brief
- Staff began the biennial budget process with the end goal of a budget-in-brief in mind.
- Budget staff created a rough draft of the document, including a graphic design specialist early on. They focused on including as few words as possible, including vibrant graphics, and keeping the writing at a 10th grade reading level.
- The designer created a brochure on legal size paper that was tri-folded to form a document that was easy to carry.
- Budget staff held presentations with field staff to help them become familiar with the brochure. For example, budget staff worked with a water distribution operator to build a strong network with public-facing employees.
- Field staff started carrying the brochures in their work vehicles and distributing them to the public when they are approached by customers.
- Other channels of distribution include outreach events and display at public watershed locations.
Jeanne Chase, East Bay MUD manager of budget, and David Mercado, the district’s principal management analyst, were working on a data visualization effort when a consultant recommended that East Bay MUD should develop a two-page summary of its annual budget. Chase and Mercado agreed and began working on the district’s first Budget-in-Brief, as part of the fiscal 2020 to 2021 budget process.
“We thought that in addition to being able to communicate information about our budget in a concise manner, it would also be a good opportunity to offer some background information about the district,” Mercado said. “Most people think you turn on the tap, you get water, and that’s the end of it. But there’s a lot more to it.”
Staff looked at examples from other governmental bodies for inspiration and guidance, and found that cities were more likely to publish a budget-in-brief than utility districts. “They range from a couple of pages to something much longer,” Mercado said. “But the general idea was that it should have visuals; it should not have a lot of text; it should be something easy to read.” Chase and Mercado created a rough draft for Michael Bergstrom, the district’s senior graphic designer, who turned the rough concept into a final product.
“This whole budget-in-brief concept was new to me,” said Bergstrom. “So it was interesting to see what other agencies are doing and where it was most effective.”
Highlighting the Utility’s Work
At the same time, Water Distribution Crew Foreman Deelorean Johnson pointed out that work crews are often approached by customers who have questions about rates, but they didn’t have any information to offer. Johnson and Chase worked together to develop roadshows and set up front-line workers with Budget-in-Brief pamphlets for these situations.
“The Budget-in-Brief has been a great help out in the field,” Johnson said, adding that customers often come out while he is onsite and ask about their charges. “They just know that it’s part of the financial package they have to pay to get water from the district. Having that booklet available and being able to open it up and show where all of their dollars go has been a great help.”
Chase agreed that the pamphlet helps highlight East Bay MUD’s work. “In the Bay Area, our customers are very knowledgeable and engaged,” she said. “We make a concerted effort to explain what our services cost. For example, most people don’t realize that we run a fish hatchery or that we have 57,000 acres of watershed land, which is about 2.5 times the size of San Francisco. We want people to understand that. We want people to understand what they pay for.” In addition, work crews are available for maintenance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. “If there’s a leak, they’re there,” Chase said. “It costs money to have that. We want customers to understand this.”
Mercado added that the visibility of the district is affected by its status as a utility, rather than a general government. “When you live in a city, I think you are a little more in tune to who your representatives are. In general, it probably gets more coverage than our utility does.”
In the future, the district hopes to translate the Budget-in-Brief document into two of the main languages spoken in the service area and to explore new avenues for distribution.
GFOA Best Practices
East Bay MUD followed GFOA’s Making the Budget Document Easier to UnderstandMaking the Budget Document Easier to Understand best practice in creating its Budget-in-Brief.