Although reviewing a 500-page spending plan that allocates more than $400 million between four divisions and 10 support bureaus, members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) won't lose sight of the big picture when the agency's 1998-99 budget hearings begin in January.

Why? A one-page spreadsheet distills the PUC's six-inch-thick annual budget into a "snapshot," giving commissioners a quick look at total costs for running the agency's divisions and bureaus and putting a clear price tag on new spending proposals. The summary form, developed by the PUC's Finance Bureau, lets commissioners instantly see how complex pieces of the agency's budget fit together.

Commissioners used the form for the first time last year and were extremely pleased, said PUC Finance Director Steven Carmichael. He expects the commission to use the summary again this year without changes.

"The form probably broke our working time in half. It was dynamite," said PUC President Victor Makras, who chaired last year's budget hearings.

"It allowed staff and the commission to stay more focused on each division on how it interplayed with the entire budget," said Makras. "In the past, you would be reaching to see the ultimate numbers."

A Sprawling Budget

PUC provides drinking water and sewer services to the city and county of San Francisco. It also wholesales water to neighboring communities and generates hydroelectric power from a string of reservoirs located near California's Yosemite National Park.

The agency pipes water more than 150 miles from the mountain reservoirs to the city, and electric power generated at its dams travels over miles of transmission lines.

Keeping financial tabs on these diverse undertakings results in a budget that's not particularly easy to digest, according to Anson Moran, the PUC's general manager.

"There are 12 or 13 major budgets that commissioners deal with," Moran said. "From an accounting standpoint, we deal with an awful lot of allocated costs. So, it's difficult to look at any one budget expense and attach meaning to it."

What's more, the PUC's five commissioners, appointed to four-year terms by the mayor of San Francisco, often don't have a public-agency background.

"They aren't necessarily utility people or government people, and they typically don't serve for a great length of time," said Moran. "Things that are kind of ordinary for those of us who deal with this insane bureaucracy aren't ordinary to them."

Searching for a Summary

Commissioners asked for a simple overview of the entire budget several years ago, said Carmichael. Working with Moran, the Finance Bureau spent a month tinkering with format and contents, finally settling on a large spreadsheet created with Microsoft's Access database software.

It was ready in time for five three-hour PUC budget review sessions held last January and February. In previous years, commissioners shuffled through some 15 pages of summary material to piece together a complete overview.

Measuring 11x17 inches, last year's summary spreadsheet listed the PUC's four operating divisions and 10 support bureaus in vertical columns. Budget amounts for 1996-97, adjustments for 1997-98, new budget proposals for 1997-98 and totals for the 1997-98 budget appeared in a series of horizontal rows.

"We crammed as much data onto that one piece of paper as we possibly could," said Carmichael. "Basically all you have is a snapshot of the total dollars, where they're being spent and what we're spending them on."

Commissioners could refer to the complete budget package to fill in financial details. "A lot of people looked at the spreadsheet, and that was enough information for them," he said.

"I think the biggest advantage of the summary was that it showed commissioners how we fit together as one entity," Carmichael said. "The message that we were trying to present became much clearer. We've had