In 2010, new Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting went to the public for input in an incredibly difficult budget year. It was called “I Value” because it wasn’t just about cuts or budgets. It sought to base a spending plan on the values of residents. The public process needed to be flipped, with input gathered on the front end, so that she and her staff could use it to craft the budget. This approach to participation required new methods. Citizens would not come to City Hall; City Hall would go to them.
An aggressive outreach campaign ensued: Social media, e-newsletters, partner organizations, and neighborhood groups, local cable interviews, paid ads, fliers and word-of-mouth. Innovation drew free publicity: media coverage from both print and TV.
People gave their input in a variety of ways:
The broad participation in shaping the budget helped educate and inform citizens about their tax dollars and what they buy. It created a model for building future budgets as the recession dragged on and housing values continued to decline.
An integral piece to building trust in the process was recording everyone’s input: during the larger meetings with polling equipment recorded answers; out in the community meetings staff would read back resident’s comments to ensure accuracy and showed them where they would be included in their notes to the city and city council; and transcripts on the 311 calls were added to data collection.
The City found that the resident input didn’t always match their expectations. Library services were described as a “need”, they initially considered larger cuts but scaled back due to the resident input. Ultimately that year the City Council approved a budget with more than a 5% cut without major contentions or controversies.
With the success of the first year they continued the program since they knew the budgets weren’t going to get easier anytime soon. Each year saw public input increase – dramatically. The first year, more than 1,000 people were actively involved in giving input. The second, 1,500. The third, more than 2,000.
In 2014 there was a clear choice to be made: increase revenues or continue to cut programs and services that residents valued. The projected gap was $7.2 million, just to keep current services. The school system had seen cuts at the state level and was also projecting a large gap, so the city invited School Superintendent to join the process. The trade-offs were clearly laid out to the public: messages went out early and honestly.
Ultimately, in year four of the process, residents overwhelming said they couldn’t support more cuts and supported a 20-cent increase in the tax rate to maintain services – and to invest in their city’s future.
For more information visit: https://www.hampton.gov/2016/I-Value-Citizen-Budget-Input