Cities look at new ways to involve citizens in budget talks

Roeland Park broke residents into small groups at its budget forums.
Roeland Park broke residents into small groups at its budget forum this month.

It is the season for city budgets with numbers flying around that are sometimes difficult for citizens to comprehend – except for the number that tells how much property tax will go up next year. Several northeast Johnson County communities, though, have been trying different methods to get residents involved in setting budget priorities.

Prairie Village, Mission and Fairway have all used different techniques to engage residents this year. One of the most successful ventures has been in Roeland Park, which also faced the greatest budget challenges among area cities. While a city budget can often cause eyes to glaze over, it is the guide to what will get done in the coming year. In two town hall forums this year, Roeland Park had residents break up into smaller groups to talk about spending priorities and program cuts.

Approximately 100 residents attended the second town hall to work on a list of budget cuts. The format divided participants into small groups to talk about their preferences. At the start of the meeting a couple of residents stridently challenged the format, but city officials stayed with the plan and survey results showed overwhelming satisfaction with the process.

A full 71 percent preferred the small groups and only seven percent disagreed with the process. A strong majority said they believe the method will influence budget decision, said they listened to others and were heard by other residents and would like to see the practice used for other discussions.

Roeland Park Councilor Marek Gliniecki called the outcome a “180 degree shift” from previous participation where the city only heard from a few people and often the same people – a comment also shared by participants. “Public speaking is intimidating,” Gliniecki said. The small group removes some of that intimidation. The new format, he said, was rooted in the council’s discussions about how to communicate better with residents.

In Mission a similar plan to use small group discussion about the budget this week didn’t draw enough participants to the table. The city has used the technique for several discussions over the years, Assistant City Administrator Laura Smith said, and had last used it for the budget in 2010 when a transportation utility fee was up for discussion. A difference between Mission and Roeland Park this year is that Roeland Park’s first budget draft contained a more than 40 percent property tax increase.

Mission has talked about using an online budget simulator like the county has used and Prairie Village used this year. Prairie Village Mayor Ron Shaffer said between April and May about 100 residents used the simulator to weigh in on the 2014 budget. Before, citizens could only give feedback at a city council meeting or directly to a council member. The simulator lets residents make choices about service levels in major areas and see the direct impact on property tax bills.

Fairway’s budget engagement this year not only included a budget forum for the city, but also included meetings for residents in each ward to meet separately in smaller groups to talk about spending priorities and programs.