Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Budget Battles
distributed 1/17/03 - ©2003

It's budget time all across the land!

The US government is still trying to pass budget resolutions that were due in September. State legislatures are trying to craft balanced budgets in the face of plunging revenue and growing needs. It is a painful legislative process that is frequently in the headlines.

This time of year, many churches hold annual meetings and approve their budgets. On the scale of local congregations, budgeting is up-close and personal. It doesn't have the "smoke and mirrors" magic that comes with huge and complex governmental projections.

There are several common responses to the politically difficult job of working out a budget -- whether it is at the national level, or a small local church.

  1. All involved can do their best to be honest and responsible. Especially in lean times, or when facing competing demands, this calls for facing up to conflict and tough decisions.

  2. The planners can resort to wild and unproven assumptions. "In 2003, we expect the loose offering on Sunday morning to jump from $500 per year to $10,000. That means we don't have to fire the CE Director." Fuzzy assumptions can have some validity if we're honest about them, and work hard to make them come true. Often, though, they're just a convenient way of denying reality, and delaying the difficult choices.

  3. Or planners can cook the books with distorted information. (Remember, the Enron scandal only broke a year ago!) Redefining "income" and "expenses" to your own benefit gives a remarkable freedom to create an attractive budget. But the corporate crises of the last year show that this response is not a valid option, either morally or practically.
In the long run, honesty is the best policy. A candid assessment of income and expenses, tied to an open process and creative thinking, will yield the best budget for all concerned.

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We generally think about budgets in terms of dollars and cents. But there are other budgets that are equally important.

Out here in the Rocky Mountain West, we're heading into another year of severe drought. The region's water shortages point out issues that could be hidden or ignored in wetter times. The budgeting of scarce water resources is becoming very real and very painful.

  • With decreased "revenue" in the form of precipitation, the deficit means that we're living on our savings account -- the water stored in reservoirs and aquifers -- and the levels just keep getting lower. We're forced to confront our assumptions about weather patterns and population growth, and ask how long these reserves will last.

  • Widely-spaced communities draw from the same aquifers, but make projections based only on their own use. (Think "joint checking account," and remember that you need to tell your spouse about all your purchases). Some long-established accounting practices haven't done an adequate job of showing the ties among these water sources and users.

  • Earlier this month, the US Department of the Interior informed California and Nevada that they can't claim "surplus" water from the Colorado River. The multi-state agreement that shapes water allocations from the river is proving to be an outdated budget, filled with inaccurate figures and invalid assumptions. The recent ruling is bringing out major conflicts between cities and farm communities in California, and between the eight states that participate in the "Colorado River Compact."

  • When the water budget gets really tight, tough choices have to be made about who goes without. Does water go to agricultural uses, or to urban lawns? How vital are recreational uses -- boating and golf courses? Do fish have any right to a minimum stream flow?
There are times each year when our public institutions -- governments, corporations, and churches -- have to make intentional decisions about financial budgets. On those occasions, the accounting and assumptions are placed on the table for examination and debate. Competing interests have a chance to state their case for funding.

The budgeting about resource use is seldom so intentional and visible. It is spread through innumerable governments, agencies and businesses. Resource decisions are embedded within other political choices. Key facts and values are often hidden far in the background. Some of the interested parties have no forum for voicing their needs.

It is only as a regional drought has pushed water issues into the forefront of public awareness that important policies and plans are receiving close scrutiny. We're finally being called upon to be open, honest and realistic about our water resources, and the competing demands on them.

In times like these, our churches can play an important role. We can make sure that all the stakeholders are represented at the table -- especially marginalized human communities, and the non-human parts of God's creation. We can raise moral and ethical questions about the assumptions being used and the allocations that are made. We can insist on processes that are fair. And we can work to defuse destructive forms of conflict, and work toward cooperation and understanding.

What resource budgets are important in your community? How is your church involved?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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