Budget thoughts

When there’s trouble I am not slow. It’s up, up, up and away I go! (to make good policy in a city I know)

On Think Twice, former members of the Locally Grown triumvirate (or perhaps that’s members of the former triumvirate) were chatting about their top city issues – including the City budget.  To cherry pick a few ideas – the budget should reflect citizen priorities and the City should present better, clearer budget information.

Priorities: The budget should reflect citizen priorities, but in practice it’s not so simple.  First, we need to determine what the collective priorities are (see my post on the community survey) and then we still have to make  decisions about spending as a result of them.  The two-pronged solution is gather lots of community input as we make policies like the Comprehensive Plan, Comprehensive Economic Development Plan and all the other plans, then work to implement them incrementally + work harder to engage citizens on an on-going basis to gather more input and check our work.

Some of our costs are driven by regulations and external factors over which we have no control or no direct control – the unfunded mandate problem.  Two issues in the news lately where this matters: stormwater and election costs.

Clearer budget information: Yes, this is a biggie and not just for the public, but for the Council, too.  Council action and the subsequent media reporting (newspaper, radio and this blog) works one budget decision at a time (“The Council voted to spend…”) and we often get bogged down in the details rather than the bigger picture – policy to the rescue.

For the Council, the big challenge ought to be developing sound policy to guide decisions, then using those policies to guide decisions.  Take the recent Safety Center financing – ideally, we would have thought carefully (and transparently) about what kinds of debt the city would issue, what type of debt would be issued for what type of project, what limits on debt or debt service costs, etc.  I believe Council members had their own well-thought out capital spending policies in their heads, but that’s not the same as a publicly available policy adopted by Council action.

If we pointed to a capital facilities policy that stated essential facilities (we could even itemize these) will be financed without a referendum where there is demonstrated need because (1) elected decision-makers are best situated to make the determination of need, (2) have critical information for determining the scope and timing of the project in the context of the city’s finances, (3) to insulate essential services from political will (with the safeguard that elected officials must stand for re-election), and (4) provide certainty and control for the project, then I believe the decision would have been much less of a surprise. It might also have helped focus on the policy problem of what issues should be put to referendum before we are trying to get a specific project underway.  Maybe the policy debate would have lead to a conclusion that we should put ALL facilities to a referendum or only those over some number of millions of dollars.  Or, perhaps recreational facilities require a referendum to issue bonds.  The policy could include guidelines for what might be financed via the EDA or HRA (with input from those bodies).

Over on Locally Grown, there’s discussion about utility franchise fees – Northfield already has a cable franchise fee, but we have considered adopting an additional franchise fee for electric and gas utilities for right-of-way access to be dedicated to street improvements.  Policy documents would be the place to establish and explain what revenue sources are available to the City (and by what authority – typically state statute), what additional taxes or fees are (or could be) adopted and what the revenue would be used for (if it is to be restricted).

In this larger context, a utility franchise fee could be evaluated as one tool to choose to put in the toolbox.  One of the charges to our ad hoc finance task force was to research how we could diversify revenue and they brought the utility franchise fee option to us.  Whether this fee is a good idea should consider the (possibly competing) goals of diversifying revenue to reduce reliance on property taxes and local government aid, equity and fairness (who will this fee affect and is that fair), ensuring transparency about the fee (obviously, we charge the utility which will pass along the cost to its rate payers) and the relationship of the proposed fee to the designated projects, etc.

Putting policies to paper or bytes also helps explain the tools we have to use for City work, provides a framework for Council and staff to act coherently, and gives citizens a yardstick by which to measure the Council’s performance – did we do what we said we’d do and do the policies reflect your priorities?  Transparency and accountability, in other words.

6 Replies to “Budget thoughts”

  1. Betsey –

    As you may recall, I have suggested that we “wiki” a budget: http://locallygrownnorthfield.org/post/18248/

    I tried to make the point that if the discussion or “wikization”, were on a divisional budget categorization level like “public safety”, “public works”, “recreation”, “buildings and facilities” or “general government”, citizens could offer Councilors their relative prioritization to assist the Council in decision-making.

    If you took it down to a departmental level, such as “community development”, “economic development”, “housing development”, and “planning”, you could explore private citizens’ views on the appropriate roles and/or expertise of the public sector.

    Finally, considering departments such as engineering, finance, and i.t. could open up the consideration of out-sourcing or inter-governmental cost-sharing.

    After many prominent and experienced citizens raised the topic for many months, all we got was the mayor’s unenthusiastic hosting of a public hearing or open house on the budget, from which I saw no tangible results, and, what, two or three years of a Mayor’s Budget Work Group, from which the only tangible result I saw was a proposal to sell the hospital (oh, and I guess to add a utility fee).

    Instead of creativity devoted to brain-storming new rubrics or fees, I’d like to see innovations in sharing public budget information and participation with private citizens.

    1. I, too, would like to see innovation and creativity in city operations, budgeting, etc. and not just rearranging the deck chairs on the municipal Titanic. However, your assessment of “all we got” is both inaccurate and superficial (for someone who watches the Council as closely as I know you do).

      I keep looking for examples of cities who really do innovate, create bold plans and then carry them out. What seems to make this work is the combined leadership of elected officials articulating a vision with passion and particularity, staff who share the vision and make it work, and the ability to engage and sustain the interest of the public while biting off one piece at a time to accomplish. In my estimation, Northfield has the pieces but they are not integrated or aligned (yet). Leadership on the Council has come from the edges. The staff is evolving toward what looks like a team which can help the Council do much, much more. Northfield is staggeringly rich in human capital, but much of the passion is not linked with government, but with business, non-profits, etc.

      Input is needed, always, but without leadership and some framework for sustaining, incorporating, and actually using the information calling for participation is empty. Rather than complaints, why not help support leaders and build the framework?

      1. Betsey –

        Okeh, I’ll admit I was too dismissive of the Council’s accomplishments on the budget over the past year or two. However, I am disappointed that the finance group seemed to have been limited by the leadership to considering only the chairs and told not to even think about touching the tables, much less the couches…or bailing buckets

        Perhaps I’m too idealistic, or just plain wrong, but I believe that real change must come from the citizens, outside of the city hall box, and be based on their priorities if we’re ever going to include the couches, or even the ottomans…or pumps, in our discussion.

        I joined with others in meeting with the mayor and city administrator at least three times on this subject. However, we now have a new city administrator and we will soon have a new mayor.

        I believe we are both aware of municipalities and states that implemented innovations in sharing budget information with and soliciting input from citizens.

        Perhaps if we elect a mayor who is truly committed to obtaining, and considering, the input of citizens, we might have the necessary leadership in place to build, and use, a new framework.

        1. And these are issues you should be asking our mayoral candidates because their leadership will be critical in uniting the Council and staff, as well as ensuring that both Council and staff know all the public input however received. Right now, the conversations you and others may have had with the administrator and mayor did not reach the rest of the Council, let alone highlighted as welcome and interesting information we could consider and act upon. To turn an old puzzle on its head, if elected officials don’t hear the input, did it actually fall in the forest?

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