Program provides tools for strategic financial leadership

Executive roles in local government require a strong understanding of complex financial concepts. Unfortunately, other than pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration, there are few options available to line staff and mid-level managers that want to learn the ins-and-outs of municipal revenue and budgeting.

To meet this need, MuniServices, one of the nation’s leading municipal tax consultants, joined with the California City Management Foundation (CCMF) and the Municipal Management Association of Southern California (MMASC) to host the inaugural cohort of the Municipal Financial Management Program, a program in local government finance that taught students about revenue policy and strategic budgeting, from January 8 through March 4.

“It’s easy to find classes and workshops on the technical side of finance,” says Julia Erdkamp, program chair and client services manager for MuniServices, “but there was nothing in place that took finance and translated it into the higher-level concepts needed for local government leaders to make decisions. It has been really rewarding to see this program come to fruition.”

“We were put in the driver’s seat of financial policy,” says Brian Haworth, the assistant to the city manager/economic development manager in Temple City, and a student in the program. “MuniServices’ program taught me that the principles of budgeting have changed from zero-based to priority-based budgeting. These are the things local government leaders have to learn to manage to be successful.”

Haworth and 12 other students recently completed the program, which included coursework on tax policy and revenue streams, strategic budget administration, financing options for municipal entities, investment strategies, and effective communication, collaboration and leadership in local government.

Taking students beyond basic financial management and teaching them how to use differing models to structure a budget, what they can and can’t do with municipal investments, and how to overcome the risks of rising costs and diminishing revenue, the program culminated with students presenting case studies of municipal bankruptcies.

“MuniServices’ program reshaped the conversations students are having and the things they are learning,” says Corona City Manager Darrell Talbert, one of the program’s panelists. “The program brought staff and department managers together to share best practices from their municipalities and learn new ways to solve budgeting problems.”

To differentiate this program from others, Erdkamp worked with municipal leaders to understand the tools and skills future department heads and executives would need to succeed. What developed was a robust classroom experience during which city managers, finance directors and industry leaders such as Michael Coleman, creator of the California Local Government Finance Almanac and principal fiscal policy advisor to the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers and the League of California Cities, trained students using real-world case studies and applied analysis.

“We took a deep dive into the realm of public finance to truly understand how it impacts every aspect of a functioning municipal government,” says Haworth. “It was interesting to talk with city managers to understand how much politics comes into play in making financial decisions. What made it even better was nothing was taboo. We had conversations that most of us could never have at work.”

As the realm of local government evolves, and the demand for more qualified public administrators increases, educational opportunities like the Municipal Financial Management Program will be essential to the success of future local government leaders and communities.