Hampton's budget process gives taxpayers a voice
In most cities, developing a city budget is an internal process, and residents can't weigh in until formal public hearings are held before a city council.
For the record, Mary Bunting opened up the process when she became Hampton's city manager. Getting input on the front end, as the budget is being developed, allows residents to discuss what programs and services they value most.
Input isn't about line-items and numbers. In Hampton, residents are asked about how the city is doing, which services need to be increased, and which can be trimmed back. The process, called I Value, has been recognized nationally for innovation, transparency and use of technology.
The I Value budget meetings for 2018 are Tuesday, Feb. 20, from 6:30-8 p.m. at Hampton High School, 1491 West Queen Street; and Saturday, Feb. 24, from 9-11 a.m., at Kecoughtan High School, 522 Woodland Road. The city manager will have an online chat with residents on Thursday, Feb. 22, from 6:30-8 p.m., and an online poll also opens the evening of Feb. 22. Polling closes March 8, 2018.
Q: Isn't this more susceptible to special interests?
A: Actually, it's less susceptible than the traditional process. If 40 people give their opinions at a public hearing, and 10 of them are organized to seek support for a program or cause, Council hears that 25 percent support that cause. Most years, more than 1,000 people give their views during I Value. That can counteract a small organized group representing a special interest.
Or let's say that we all have special interests: PTA moms, soccer dads, Neighborhood Watch groups, business leaders, environmental groups, senior citizens, etc. We all get the same chance to speak out and have the same input. In a public hearing, we'd probably only speak about our single top interest. Under I Value, we are asked about other services we care about. The I Value meetings and surveys include nearly 50 questions about various city services and programs.
Q: Didn't this begin as a reaction to the recession? It's over.
A: It did. The first "I Value" budget was for fiscal year 2011. The budget was cut by 5 percent. Although some residents weren't thrilled, they understood. More than 1,000 participated in the meetings and polls.
Q: Isn't this just a ploy to raise tax rates?
A: Property taxes were raised once, for FY14. It wasn't an easy decision, but given the choice of severe cuts to parks, libraries, schools, public works, police and more, residents indicated a willingness to raise rates and restore the tax levels to basically what they were before home values dropped. When tax rates were an issue — and serious cuts were considered — the I Value participation rate rose to nearly 5,000 people.
Raising taxes is a last resort. City revenues have declined for several years. Even though they've been up slightly for each of the past four years, they aren't growing at the rate of inflation. Just maintaining the services residents now have takes a little more money each year.
Q: Isn't the recession over?
A: What residents will see this year is that the city revenues since that first year — based on the budget before I Value — are still behind the inflation rate. Some city departments have been cut pretty dramatically, with some streamlining and internal reorganizations. Some services have been reduced or take longer to complete. But the services residents indicated were their top priority have increased in spending beyond that inflationary level: the city has added firefighter-medics and police officers, as well as new technology related to solving crimes.
Q: What do you mean this process has won awards?
A: Here's what we mean:
- “Innovations in Government” Award finalist (one of seven) by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2017.
- All-America City, 2014 (I Value was one of the three projects submitted).
- A “Champions of Change” award from the White House for local government innovations, 2012.
- Bunting earned a leadership award for “innovative and successful local government programs that have significantly affected an organization’s culture or strategic direction” from ICMA, an international management organization for local governments, 2012.
- Thomas H. Muehlenbeck Award for Excellence in Local Government, 2011.
- Reinhard Mohn Prize finalist, presented by The Bertelsmann Foundation , the largest private operating non-profit foundation in Germany. More than 100 projects from 36 countries were nominated; Hampton was one of only two finalists from the U.S., 2011.
- Multiple honors from: the City-County Communications and Marketing Association (3CMA) SAVVY Awards; International Government Finance Officers Association Distinguished Budget Presentation Award; Top 10 Digital City awards from Center for Digital Government.
Posted Feb. 16, 2018