A Terrific Must-Read Document for 2024

A Terrific Must-Read Document for 2024
Photo by Fabian Blank / Unsplash

This is part of a short series on navigating 2024. A few other ideas here and here, you'll know what options feel right to you.

Every so often, I treat myself to a romp through my city's budget.

This juicy read is filled with a language unto itself: outlays and capital improvement projects, the somewhat familiar FY and the highly mysterious ( ).

Outlay is the money committed to a program.

Capital improvement plan/project/program (CIP or capital project) is a multi-year plan for improving elderly infrastructure like bridges, sewers, HVAC in city buildings, etc.

FY stands for Fiscal Year. Many cities have an FY that runs July 1-June 30; we're currently in FY24. Our compadres in the federal government have an FY that runs Oct. 1-Sept. 30, hence the pandemonium emanating from Capitol Hill each September.

( ) typically means minus; when a number is in parentheses (654,321), it means negative 654,321.

But with a little decoding, a budget is a pretty readable document that does one pretty important thing: it spells out in dollars and cents what matters to a city. (I'll use city and town interchangeably, whether you live in one or the other, much of this applies!)

Bozeman, Montana has a city budget of $182.7 million, of which $290,566 was spent on children's library services.

Sarasota, Florida has a budget of $251.9 million, of which $48,126 was spent on the municipal golf course and nature trails.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire has a budget of $137.2 million, of which $4,000 was spent on snow plow repairs.

So this year of loud top-of-the-ticket noise, why not turn a bit of our attention to seeing how aligned our city is with our values?

Nearly everything in our lives is shaped by policy, and city policy especially has a big hand in shaping the quality of our daily life: the speed limit on our street, the amount of parking spaces downtown, who can build what and where, the number of fire trucks our town has (did you know fire trucks can set you back about $2 million?), what public elementary school our kiddo attends, whether there's a stop sign, traffic light, or nothing at all at an intersection. And more.

Most policy needs cash to actualize it, making the budget both a statement of town values and town policy. So we policy lovers have good skin in the game here.

Before we go diving nose first into the budget, it might be helpful to give ourselves some bowling alley bumpers. These documents can be a bit unwieldy - or they are to me, at least - and we need not read them cover to cover. (If you crack open the budget and realize that this is the read you've been waiting for, then by all means, see it through to the very last period!)

Typically, I read the Executive Summary, which is a useful scene-setter to see the city's goals. Then I choose a few things I care about or really want to see changed: sidewalks, teachers salaries (note: many cities have separate school budgets), bike lanes, library hours, say. And go on a word search through the budget for these issues.

Usually, I'll learn a bit about how the city funds (or doesn't) things that matter to me. And I'll learn a bit, too, about how the city operates generally. Which is useful knowledge if I want to change what policy the city spends money on.

Let's say that in thumbing through our city's budget, we see a line item (a fancy way of saying "something in the budget") we'd like to plus up, reduce, get added in. A good first step is to check out the city website to see if there's a timeline for budget development. For FY's that run July 1-June 30, a rough framework would be starting in January and going through the spring, until the council votes on the budget around June-ish. But good to verify.

If the website is a dead end, we can give our city/town clerk's office a jingle and get the lowdown from them. The clerk is my go-to when I can't figure out what is the what in local government. (And it never hurts to ask them to put that budget timeline on the town's website; that's clutch civic knowledge right there that folks deserve to have.)

Once we've got the calendar, our next step is reaching out to our city/town councilor. You might have a few choices here: you may have a councilor who represents your district (Don't know your district? No shame! You can find that on your town's website) and/or you might have an at-large councilor/s who represents the whole town. Choose who you think is the most aligned with you and drop'em a short, friendly email asking for a meeting.

One useful note: for many cities, emails to city councilors are subject to the city or state equivalent of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. So it's generally good to be thoughtful about what we're saying, should an enterprising reporter ask for all the email correspondence of our councilor. Highly unlikely it'll happen, but we can take a page from Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday: "Never do nothing you wouldn't want printed on the front page of The New York Times."

Ideally, we want to nab our councilor before the budget cycle kicks off or in the earliest days of it. If they're knee-deep in the budget, we can reach out to have a laying-the-groundwork convo, but we might not be able to make headway this FY.

To prep for a convo, two bits of homework that could be helpful.

A short justification with third-party validation for why this change should be made. Third-party validation is using a reputable source to make our case for us. Federal guidelines, municipal associations or industry experts (International City/County Management Association, National League of Cities, etc.), examples from nearby towns are all good third-party validators.

So instead of, "Automatic walk signals are where it's at! Let's get 27 of them PRONTO!" We could try something like, "Federal guidelines suggest that walk signals should be used in situations X and Y. I'd love to see us lead the way on pedestrian safety by implementing that at all four corners of RecklessSpeed Lane and GoAsFastAsYouPlease Boulevard. Could we work together on that?"

A few other constituents who support it. Councilors are beholden to voters, the more voters who support something, the more they need to pay attention. Send around a survey to a few folks in the district (for a city councilor who represents a district) or the city (for an at-large city councilor) to ask if they'd sign their name in support of what you want to change in the budget.

If we want to take it up to the 201 level, we could meet with a few city/town councilors to build a base of support.

We absolutely do not need all the answers for these meetings; in many ways, we're on a fact finding mission to see how we can make our budget change happen. I like to ask councilors, "I'm learning the ropes here; how can I be helpful in moving this along?" or "Is there anyone else it would be useful for me to chat with?" Good chance they'll be generous with their knowledge.

Our city's spending should have some alignment with taxpayer values. And if city councilors aren't hearing from us, there's a good chance they are hearing from lobbyists. The fewer citizen voices heard, the more outsized lobbyist influence can be.

This year, of all years, asks that we be purposeful with our focus. And what a terrific thing to place some of it on a budget that give us the tools to assert our voice and influence in building the city we want to live in.

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