Officials look to open up budget process

Officials look to open up budget process

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City Manager Rashad Young wants to give residents a bigger role in crafting the annual budget.

When Young presents his budget to city council each year — usually in late winter — it sets off a whirlwind of activity. Young’s staff briefs city leaders while residents discuss the proposal and lobby for personal causes.

But ensuring those debates and ideas are reflected in the final document proves an annual challenge.

“Once I present it in February, we basically have this road show, with the employee groups and the town hall meeting,” Young said. “But most of the dialogue and feedback about what exactly going on comes after my presentation of the budget [and we already have a baseline].”

Young earlier this month proposed tweaking the budget process. His suggestions include more closely aligning the city’s budget schedule with the school board’s process. He also would add extra public comment periods to discuss priorities before the rough draft of the document is submitted to council in February.

The benefit is twofold: It extends Young’s efforts to make budgeting more results-oriented, like last year’s initiative forcing department heads to prioritize. To do that, Young gave each agency a baseline figure to start with, leaving his subordinates to figure out how to make it work for them.

And the change better corresponds with the framework established by the What’s Next Alexandria? initiative.

“The process historically hasn’t lent itself to focusing on priorities from an outcomes perspective,” Young said. “We’re trying to be better at prioritization, and part of that is talking to the community early and often about what it’s priorities are.

“What exactly is the city trying to do? What services do we provide, when and at what level? We want to hear what they want in a fuller sense outside of the normal hearing process.”

A few of these changes already have happened administratively. In addition to the usual fall meeting — scheduled for Monday — officials posted an online survey for residents, letting them weigh in on budget issues. The questionnaire is available on the city’s website.

But city councilors were wary of the move when Young made his case before them earlier this month. Embracing the change means adjusting the budget calendar and the new schedule would give city councilors less time to deliberate, thus pushing back the budget’s introduction by at least a week or two. And several feared the additional community meeting could be misconstrued.

“We have to act very carefully about how we would characterize this,” said City Councilor Tim Lovain. “People could feel misled by it. They could think this is the ‘proposed budget’ when it hasn’t been proposed yet.”

Young acknowledged that it will be difficult to strike the right balance both about how much information to provide about a budget that is subject to change, and how to request input while acknowledging the city still has limited resources and competing interests.

“Yeah, that’s going to be really hard,” Young said. “We haven’t really engaged in a process like this before. There is this sweet spot that I’m looking for to share enough information about what we’re thinking to get genuine feedback, but not create a firestorm or create undue expectations.”

But making sure residents ultimately have more say over the budget is worth the public relations risk, he said.

“It’s definitely easier to keep stuff close to the vest,” Young said. “But if we really want to make the community have a greater role in this process, we have to figure out how to share some things that may be tough for us to do.”