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Your August Useful Community Plus
August 26, 2021
Inside: How getting involved in the not so glamorous budget process can help your community
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The benefits of spending some of your neighborhood organization's energy on city-level budgets are several: (1) You learn how to receive concrete and visible neighborhood improvements, (2) residents become more realistic and therefore more politically influential when they understand how your city works, and (3) seeing the bigger picture often enables residents to steer a new conversation about what is really necessary.
Sorry we didn't act sooner to send you a link to this visual story about cities that are trying to make their budgets more understandable to citizens--and the residents who are pushing to make it happen. This was written during the intense "defund the police" conversation, so it's a little too heavy on police spending talk. But it's well worth a read. Be patient as you load this visual-laden piece.
Getting involved in your city's budget process is often fairly difficult, and you must insist. But if you really want to influence your city's priorities and dramatize neighborhood-level needs, try to shake up the way the city forms, presents, and discusses its budget.
Many municipal budgets begin in October, and the others tend to begin in January, so now is the perfect time to start thinking about this.
Don't be surprised if you have an experience like that of one of our authors. The budget document was ridiculously opaque and only available an hour or two before the "public hearing." At this so-called hearing, the council members went through the motions, but limited the speaking time to two minutes for each member of the public. The kicker is that only two people out of a county of nearly a million residents spoke. So in five minutes the council was able to dispense with that nasty public hearing requirement in their charter. They then voted to accept the budget as presented, with no changes and no responses to the residents who spoke.
If your proposed budget is not made available to you in a timely way, create infographics for your neighborhood and other community groups based on the previous year's budget. There is a regrettable tendency for governmental budgets to look similar from year to year, so you can probably start some great discussions based on the current budget.
We are fans of participatory budgeting, in which citizens are granted a "vote" among alternatives that are then incorporated in the budget. But in all instances that we know about, the amount of money devoted to participatory budgeting is small. Participatory budgeting is no substitute for budget documents that let people really understand where the money comes from and where it goes.
Should you receive a current or proposed budget that your group can't figure out, or more likely that does not provide the details you really want, ask a staff member to explain. As one blurb in the linked video story says so plainly, "It's their job."
As an example, here is the breakdown of one city's budgeted spending at a glance: Public safety (fire, police, corrections), 53%; Public works, 15%; Prosecutor's office and municipal courts system, 10%; General government and finance, 2%; Parks, 4%; Health and human services, 1%; and Other, 9%.
If you think you can make that into a pie chart and explain everything, think again. What about the sources and uses of special purpose funds (of which some cities have many), the so-called enterprise funds, the Community Development Block Grant, and the capital improvements budget? Those aren't included in the above numbers.
Let's take enterprise funds. For cities, that means activities such as airports, parking garages, and utilities that make significant amounts of money and in some instances even turn a profit. Your group will need to look at how those funds are actually spent.
It's inexplicable to us that capital improvements sometimes don't even show up in the regular budget. "Capital improvements" means items such as street construction, building construction, street lighting, sidewalks, and the like. Indeed if your group feels it can focus on only one aspect of city budgeting, pick understanding the capital improvements planning and budgeting process, unless your development is so new that there are no infrastructure or public service needs.
Our view, and that of most planners, is that each year's plan from the multi-year capital improvements plan should be reflected in the city budget, perhaps under a departmental budget such as public works or parks, or perhaps as a separate line item. We don't understand why cities think it is O.K. to hide these capital improvements in a separate place.
If your neighborhood or community group becomes interested in this, we recommend an ongoing committee that will gather expertise over the course of several years. If understanding the budget is difficult, even with dedicated volunteers, turn that into a campaign to make the budget both more transparent and more understandable.
Sometimes cities have been pressured toward greater transparency, leading to a dump of long documents without explanations, but if the documents are too convoluted, people will still walk away and shrug their shoulders.
Don't let that happen. If your city's priorities don't reflect the needs of the neighborhoods and the people, get busy at positioning yourselves to be effective advocates.
Expect to find that police, fire, and public works have the largest shares of the budget. But we would be remiss if we didn't suggest that planning, community development, code enforcement, human services, and beautification often need much larger percentages!
Oh, and do read the visual story linked above. It's fun and informative.
This month we answered the following questions from you folks, our much-appreciated website visitors. That first one could have been three or four times as long. Send us an email reply about what you think about community development as a process.
The next newsletter will be sent on a Thursday in September. Feel free to reply to this newsletter with comments. If you are asking a question you would like answered, please use the public-facing community development questions page on the website.
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