Americans love to hate taxes-- or so the thinking has gone since the days of the Boston Tea Party. But where, exactly, does the balance between the payment of taxes and delivery of government services really fall for residents?
In 2018, the City of Norfolk faced a budget challenge: their revenue growth wasn’t keeping pace with the city’s expenses, leaving the city with a $13.3 million budget deficit going into 2019. City leaders were faced with the choice to cut costs or raise revenues.
Public Officials wanted residents to understand the reality of their budget before making the difficult, potentially controversial decision to raise taxes or cut popular city services. The city’s traditional method of community outreach around the budget wasn’t cutting it; they were spending immense amounts of staff time to engage small crowds of the usual suspects. “Doing these in-person budget engagements, we were not garnering much attention or interest at all. We weren’t getting the type of feedback we thought was valuable,” Gregory Patrick, the City of Norfolk’s Budget Director said.
Norfolk turned to Balancing Act, an online budget simulator developed by the Denver-based GovTech firm Engaged Public. Using Balancing Act, the city offered residents the chance to weigh in on a proposed 10 cent per $100 of assessed value real estate tax increase. Megan Erwin, a senior budget and policy analyst and “budget outreach czarina,” helped the City of Norfolk design a local version of their city budget through Balancing Act in a way she hoped would create the most constructive, informative conversation about their budget gap with residents. “I did a lot of research around best practices and found it was important that we provide context. The problem with other technology-based open budgeting tools is that they offer lots of information with little context.”
Erwin added layers of information so that users could choose how much to learn about a budget item or question as they participate. These options keep the questions simple: when balancing your budget, you can see how much the police department is given in local revenue, but by clicking the information button, you can learn more about their mission and link to their website. Norfolk’s budget staff also provides context by hosting in-person presentations about the budget tailored to specific communities. For those not comfortable with technology they offer a pen-and-paper version.
The City of Norfolk reached out to local civic leagues, used social media and local news to spread the word about this new way to engage in the city’s budget process.
One distinctive feature in Norfolk’s budget engagement is that they see it as a year-round activity, with different emphases at different points in the budget process. Early in the fiscal year, they launch a simulation with a preliminary budget. This version is based on gauging broad priorities and seeing how residents would resolve tough potential tradeoffs. The second version of Balancing Act accompanies the city manager’s proposed budget in such a way that the public and elected officials can both see the rationale for initial decisions and provide high-level input. This version included the proposed tax increase for the upcoming year. The final version is launched after Council approves the budget and serves as an interactive citizen budget that also collects input for the next year. Last year 2,365 residents spent an average of 14 minutes on the site, and 240 submitted a balanced budget.
In addition to asking residents to weigh in on how to best balance their budget, Norfolk also used Taxpayer Receipt, a budget tool that shows residents how much of their tax bill goes towards different areas in the city like debt service, libraries, or recreation.
When it came time for Norfolk’s City Council to vote on the 10-cent tax increase, the budget staff braced for hours of public comment until the wee hours of the morning. In reality, only two people spoke against the proposed tax. Patrick credits the city’s new, innovative ways of informing and listening for the successful vote on a difficult decision: “I think the level of outreach we did last year gave our city council a lot of confidence that anyone who was interested [in the tax] understood how the new revenue would be spent and why.” Norfolk expects the 10-cent real estate tax increase to raise $18.5 million a year-- enough to invest in some of the issues residents flagged as their highest priority like combating sea level rise, education and infrastructure.
Going into the FY 2020 budget year, they continue to use Balancing Act and Taxpayer Receipt and have also internally created an online March Madness-style Budget Bracket Challenge. The Bracket Challenge is available online and is also used at Civic League meetings where a room of residents use clickers to weigh in on their top budget priorities. This method provides yet another way for residents to get involved in the process, and convey their priorities, without having to consider specific dollar amounts.
Erwin hopes that 2019 will show that their investment in civic engagement has paid off. “This is not a city problem; it’s a community problem and it requires community input.”
Watch a recording of Greg and Megan sharing more of Norfolk’s work in an October 10, 2018 webinar presented by the Alliance for Innovation.
Balancing Act makes budget engagement simple. Our cloud-based software provides government the tools for meaningful financial transparency, accountability and participation. Come visit us on Corporate Partner Avenue at the 2019 TLG Conference in Reno. Or, for more information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-727-8269.