Securing Distinction in Municipal Budgeting for Your Community: A How-To Guide from Red Deer County

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The International Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) established the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award Program in 1984 to encourage and assist state and local governments in preparing budget documents of the very highest quality – budgets that reflect both the guidelines established by the National Advisory Council on State and Local Budgeting and the GFOA’s best practices on budgeting. The Distinguished Budget Presentation Award recognizes individual governments that succeed in achieving that goal. Red Deer County has been awarded the GFOA Distinguished Budget Award for three consecutive years. Administration is currently working on the presentation for the fourth. Neither Council nor senior administration had been asking for better budget documents, so why did we decide to do it at all?

At first, we held the “feather in the cap” viewpoint; but it ended up being so much more than that. The decision to submit the document for Award consideration was an additional endeavour to provide approachable, responsible, and accountable government. The process was challenging as the standards are high, the resources required to complete the document are significant, and our organization felt it had to adopt and integrate those standards and requirements during its budget process so as to not overburden the department. As we already had the tools (staff, software, etc.), administration could provide the required detailed information, but our current process did not produce the information we realized the document required. Suffice to say, it was a large initial undertaking.

The first year is the hardest. In fact, our first attempt at securing the GFOA award was not submitted. Despite a concerted effort, it was clear our document had not met the requirements. However, every year following, we have found it gets easier as processes are formed, departmental staff are aware of the non-financial information that will be required, multi-software communication is streamlined, and data is cleaned up, resulting in an enhanced budget document every year. The comments provided by GFOA are also extremely helpful, contributing to our continuous improvement. As a result, Red Deer County can offer many suggestions for those who might be considering submitting their document for Award consideration. The rewards have proven to be worth the additional effort of administration.

The requirements outlined in the GFOA Award document enabled us to tell the unique story of our municipality rather than the audited financial statements that are difficult and cumbersome to read if you are not an accounting professional.  The requirements relate to strategic planning, external environmental factors, financial structure, policy and process, financial summaries, capital and debt, staffing, and departmental information. For a full description of the requirements, readers can review the GFOA website.

Our budget document is an evolving, story-telling tool for Red Deer County, not simply a mandatory financial report to meet the reporting requirements of a municipality.

Service levels are communicated throughout the document, which is exactly what you want Council and the public to be focused on. Too much detail enables readers to get into the management of the organization. Service and taxation levels need to be balanced appropriately and are excellent communication pieces for Council and the public to be involved in. Moreover, budget terms can be highly technical where non-financial or non-government readers can struggle with understanding budgets, however, the award requires clarity and use of charts, graphs and photographs to help illustrate the message, offering further validity to the budget.

Some of the challenges we have overcome and, when enhancing our document, continue to face, include:

  • Getting buy-in from staff – this isn’t just related to the finance department, rather an opportunity for all departments to identify and validate the services they provide and the related costs
  • Software – it is imperative to have the right software, integrated with the financial program. Doing so results in less manual data entry and duplication of workload.
  • Reporting – auto-reports that generate the information you want to capture
  • Consistency with data – ensure the data relations are the same for each department
  • Document standards – when meeting reporting requirements, it can be challenging to gather the information from a readily available source
  • Timelines – We incorporate the timelines for meeting the submission date deadline directly into our annual budget process beginning in June, to ensure all information is available for inclusion. Departments require time to provide performance measures, which in some cases cannot be measured until the calendar year is complete. Administration requires time to assemble the pertinent/relative information, and communications requires time to merge all the document components into one attractive reader-friendly document.

Red Deer County Council is very proud to offer the transparency, level of detail, and analysis to County residents and appreciates how clearly the document identifies that the budget is tied to the Strategic Plan. Overall, we believe the document is extremely transparent and structured in a way that is easy for the reader to understand: financial details accompanied by department goals and achievements are displayed together; formatting is consistent; and bar charts and photos enhance the overall application.

Department staff are excited to provide information above and beyond the numbers. Finance staff do not often see the benefits of their efforts as easily as more direct-line staff do; their role in attaining the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award cannot be understated. Even more, Red Deer County residents have an excellent source of information at their fingertips. The communication of receiving the award helps to promote the budget, encouraging residents to take a look at the document.

Our budget document is an evolving, story-telling tool for Red Deer County, not simply a mandatory financial report to meet the reporting requirements of a municipality. We invite you to visit our website to view our budget documents at

HEATHER SURKAN, CPA, CGA is the Director of Corporate Services at Red Deer County. She is responsible for Finance, Assessment, Communications and Human Resources. Heather has worked in municipal government for 14 years. She also sits on the executive board of GFOA (Government Finance Officers Association) Alberta.

TORINA PRICE is the Financial Analyst at Red Deer County and has worked in the finance department at Red Deer County for 15 years.

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