There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air on March 20th throughout a Columbus Fire Department conference room at the conclusion of the City’s annual big-picture planning session.
Approximately 30 City officials, including City Administrator Tara Vasicek, Mayor Jim Bulkley, the entire Columbus City Council, department heads and other staff members conversed for about an hour and a half during the workshop led by a pair of representatives from a University of Nebraska Extension partnership program. The meeting was the first major step City leaders will take toward planning for the upcoming fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1, 2023, and run through Sept. 30, 2024.
“I thought the budget planning session was great,” City Human Resources Director Tammy Orender said. “It is so nice to get everyone together and hear all the ideas others have for the City.”
Vasicek is now entering her seventh budget cycle as city administrator in Columbus. She said the big-picture planning session began as a biannual meeting, but the productivity that occurred and feedback received from participants resulted in it becoming a yearly occurrence over time.
“What I’ve learned through the years is it’s really valuable for all of us to sit together and build consensus,” Vasicek said. “This process allows everyone here to have a voice, even if they don’t necessarily speak out loud. I think it’s so important.”
The program officials had City leaders and staff split into small groups to come up with topics the City of Columbus should be focused on as it prepares for the future. A collective group conversation followed and generated promising results.
Across the board, the major priorities the group came up with were increasing revenue, community engagement/communications, downtown, housing, parks and recreation, and then transportation and infrastructure. Diving deeper into each category, there were many similarities when it came time to discuss how the City tackles each priority. Identifying and applying for relevant grants, strengthening the police and fire departments, continuing to improve public communication via press releases, social media, its website and other things; park beautification, downtown improvement efforts and more were some of the suggestions discussed.
“I was surprised that the results from all groups were very similar with a focus on increased revenue and improvements to the downtown area and parks and recreation having high priorities,” City Clerk Janelle Kline said.
“I feel it went really well. It was good to have a mixture of council members and department heads discussing the future needs of the City to develop a common vision. This will provide staff direction for budget preparations.”
Vasicek said she’s encouraged with how the session went, noting it will be something she references with department heads in the near future and throughout the entire budget-planning cycle. The meeting streamlined the whole process, she noted.
“We had 25-plus people with entirely different missions within the City of Columbus, and today they have built consensus in an hour-and-a-half in terms of what direction the City should move in over the next 18 months,” Vasicek said.