We have officially entered budget season and as usual, most of the budget books will not be any easier for the public to use.
City of Memphis’ budget book will be about 400 pages with revenues of $750 million.
Shelby County’s budget book will be about 760 pages for $1.5 billion in revenues.
Memphis Shelby County School’s budget book will top out at about 760 pages for its $2.2 billion all funds total.
Germantown’s $60 million budget will take about 320 pages to explain. Bartlett needs about 320 pages for its $31 million budget. Collierville uses about 200 pages to explain its $70 million but also provides one of those gratuitous political pamphlets that provide highlights complete with photographs of the mayor and aldermen.
What is consistent for almost every budget book is that they bury the lede.
Most people who access the budget documents online are likely looking for the size of the budget, the amount of revenues and expenditures, or the amount produced by property taxes.
This information is never up front. It requires burrowing past the photos of the politicians, past the vision, talking points, and past some general information. Finally, after all that, you can find out how much the governmental entity is spending.
There are of course better ways to develop budgets and there certainly are better ways to present it so the public has easy access and it’s not larded with bureaucratic terms and charts. It’s as if the point of the budgeting exercise, as reflected by the budget document, is to make it as difficult as possible for the public to do their own research.
That said, of the local budgets, City of Memphis budget book is arguably the best. It’s not that it’s flawless – like the others, it’s hundreds of pdf’s with data we can’t manipulate – but in the context of the others, it is at least interesting and mostly self-explanatory.
There’s A Pattern
It would seem that the pandemic with its fiscal stresses for government would have been a good time to engage in a citizen participatory budget process. But that was not to be. Governments remained cloistered, keeping the fiscal decisions for isolated insiders preparing budgets that address budgetary and political needs.
There are alternatives used in other cities to gather public input if our governments wanted it. Instead, politicians feed citizen apathy about being involved in setting priorities and the budgets to address them.
It produces an environment of cynicism amplified by yearly promises that greater efficiency will have no impact on vital services or increase taxes. Citizens here have heard it all before – for decades.
It’s a mystery why local government doesn’t seem to want to have an actual discussion with the public about what they want and to provide them with information about budgetary options.
Meaningful Budget Input
Clearly, the public is interested.
That’s proven by the Moral Budget Coalition which organized during the 2021 budget cycle “after seeing a need for including community voice in setting the Shelby County budget priorities.” It seems that the effort has largely received lip service from politicians too nervous about actually giving taxpayers a way to give their input.
The Moral Budget Coalition offers an online survey about budget priorities.
The answer to meaningful public input into budget priorities is not have more public meetings. They are not good at giving the level of influence the public deserves; however, they can be used as sessions to share information and knowledge. The National Civic League has even suggested that study circles might break down barriers.
Some cities conduct public satisfaction surveys to gauge the public’s attitude and to integrate the opinions into the budget process. In fact, City of Memphis conducted these kinds of surveys for about 20 years after they were begun by the Herenton Administration.
Turning A Deaf Ear
Incredulously, the annual survey was eliminated by Mayor A C Wharton Jr. His administration said they were too costly. Actually, the yearly report of about 140 pages was directed by Rhode College professor Mike Kirby with the help of his students so it’s hard to believe that cost was really at the basis of the cancellation. More likely, it was driven by politics and a fear that the Wharton Administration would not earn the high marks of the Herenton Administration.
Then, too, in 2013, the Wharton Administration launched the process for the Five-Year Strategic Fiscal and Management Plan, which included a three-pronged public input process. What the public wanted as priorities was captured in a 76-page report.
As part of the planning, the public was promised that the process would be unlike those in the past because this time, politicians would listen to the public’s opinion and use it to directly shape the budget.
The consensus result: the public said spend more money on neighborhoods and less money on police. As one mother in Whitehaven emotionally said at a meeting: “I want to live in a city that spends as much money trying to keep my son out of jail as it spend trying to put him in.”
It turned out that promises to the public were a farce. In the end, despite the public’s stated priorities and opinions, the Wharton Administration and the Memphis City Council did precisely the opposite of what the survey and polling said: they gave the police significantly more money while community-based services remained stagnant.
It’s no wonder that the public is cynical when city officials say they are listening to the public.
As one researcher has said: “There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participate and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process.” The public has never been given the power to affect the process.
And this is for development of arguably the most important document in any governments. Budgets matter. They reflect a vision, or the lack of one, and they roadmap for the future, measured against past performance.
By and large, citizens don’t understand how government works, and when you look at budget documents, it’s hard not to conclude that government wants to keep it that way.
Opengov.com says in “Beyond The Numbers: The Online Budget Book – Improve your community’s reporting and transparency capabilities by transforming your budget book” that a budget document is a policy document, a financial plan, an operational guide, and a communications device. “Unfortunately, a static, printed budget book falls short as a year-long resource in all four categories,” it says.
A Genuine Voice for the Public
For example, the City of Memphis budget document begins with a vision and a mission but it’s next to impossible to see – or have it explained – how the budget itself achieves them. It lacks a nexus between aspirations and a clear plan to achieve them, and as a result, the public is left confused and cynical.
There is a better way.
This is how the New Hampshire Municipal Association describes it: “Budgets are more credible and receive the broadest support when citizens and elected officials have provided input throughout the planning process, are aware of major developments, and understand budget tradeoffs.
“Providing them with a genuine voice in the municipality’s choices further strengthens trust and buy-in. To open input and feedback channels, municipalities may solicit feedback in person or online through public hearings, open houses, citizen academies, focused discussion sessions, and needs surveys. To reach a more representative cross-section of citizens, municipalities should use technology solutions whenever possible to make it more convenient for stakeholders to access information and participate on demand.
“Consider asking citizens the following: What core service areas are most important to you? What should the city/county/district’s top priorities be – this year and in the future? What do you want to see more of from your local governments? What are you willing to pay more for?”
Why Not Here?
More understanding of how the money is raised and how it is spent begins with budget documents that are more than PDFs of the budget book. There should be web-based data visualizations, infographics, and FAQ pages.
The goal should be to better engage the public and make it easier for the people who pay the bills to find the data they want, find takeaways, and find answers to questions.
As the International City-County Management Association states: “Forward-thinking government officials not only publish data in its raw form, but they also provide a way for the public to understand and use the data through maps, visualizations, APIs to remix and reuse the information, and user-friendly apps that engage and connect people to their government. By sharing a dollar-by-dollar view into the budget, elected officials and department managers can demystify the complexity and questions around government finances with ease.”
We know it’s possible, because other local governments are doing it.
Taxpayers in Memphis and Shelby County deserve no less, but government officials will need to see beyond the task of preparing a budget to communicating it and giving the public options to use it.
Yes, it’s a task, and although the most dreaded comment a public official hears is “I pay your salary,” the truth is we do.
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