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Budgets are moral documents. As a society, we demonstrate our values by what we spend our money on. So when governments draft budgets they show what is important to bureaucrats and politicians, but what if their perspectives are not aligned with the public? And how do we insert what we value into the process?

Government Spending

The reality is that budgets are generally developed out of the public’s view. Even municipal ones! Most people have no idea what the process is or what is being proposed. They hear about it later once the budget has been approved and realize that it does not meet their needs or mesh with their values. However, it is rare that you have a packed house listening to department heads present their proposals for the budget. And it is even more rare that members of the public ask questions about what is being funded and then provide their own suggestions for budget allocations.

Getting to Congress to provide input on a line item in the HUD budget is a bit of a chore, but making it to your local city council to ask for more funding for after-school programs for children is much more practical and doable.

There is no better place to see what our taxes are spent on than at the local level. Getting to Congress to provide input on a line item in the HUD budget is a bit of a chore, but making it to your local city council to ask for more funding for after-school programs for children is much more practical and doable.

So how do you get into the game? How would you even know what is being proposed or how much is spent on art supplies and soccer balls, let alone on traffic lights or even police cars? And how do we influence those decisions so that they really represent what we value as a community?

  • Learn how budgets are crafted in your town. Most city managers ask department heads for their budget estimates about 4-5 months into the fiscal year. That way by the sixth month they have enough information to do a mid-year revise of the current budget. And by then they also have a decent idea of what revenues are looking like for the next fiscal year. It is really important to find out what the budget making steps are in your city as they vary slightly from town to town.
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  • Know what the revenue streams are for municipal government and what causes them to fluctuate. In most cities in California property tax and sales tax are the main income sources and those towns with hotels also have a transfer occupancy tax (TOT) to draw upon. A few cities like Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank have their own municipal water and power utilities so they are also able to generate revenue through fees on those services. Once you find out what the revenue streams are then you will know how much is in play each year and if they will be proposing cuts or additions.
  • Find out what department heads are proposing for next year. As was stated earlier, city managers ask for department head input around November/December in a July 1 - June 30 fiscal year. By the first week in May they have what is known as the City Manager’s Recommended Operating Budget for Fiscal Year 20xx. Normally it is posted on the city’s web site and is usually enormous, at hundreds of pages. These documents are filled with fascinating details like how proposals relate to city council goals, notes on the future outlook of the city, descriptions of current programs and even line-by-line budget expenses. Make sure that you have a budget lover on your team if you hope to provide input as these documents are thick.
  • Know what the department budget presentation schedule is in your town. One of the greatest challenges to citizen participation is time, i.e. you have to make the time to be part of this process. And cities often don’t make it easy for you to do that. For example, they start hearings earlier in the day, like 3:00 pm. Then they lump several departments together on the same day. Try listening to Police, Fire, Library, Public Health and Human Services/Recreation all in one afternoon. If they can’t complete the hearing in the afternoon then they continue into the evening so plan on setting aside plenty of time.
  • Know what you want to prioritize in the budget. And why it is of value to you and the community. After you have analyzed what is being offered this is your opportunity to provide a better option. Be ready to explain why it is so important to shift funding from what the City has proposed to your idea. And bring lots of friends and family to help reinforce that point.

In other parts of the world there is a different type of decision-making process called ‘participatory budgeting’. Founded in Brazil in the early 90’s it has spread to Mexico, Kenya, Indonesia and New York City, among others. Its goals are to create a stronger civil society, improve transparency, provide for greater accountability, and improve social outcomes. And to shore up our belief in democratically run government. These are extraordinary ideals which are morally admirable so you would think more cities would be using this process.

Sadly, however, few cities in Southern California have embraced the participatory budgeting movement. So until local leaders become more trustful of citizen participation and less caught up in their belief that they know what is best for the community, we must be diligent about contributing to the budget-making process. And there is no better time than now to get into the budget game for those cities that must adopt a balanced budget by the end of June.


Brian Biery