Greater Greater Washington

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Give residents a "menu" for DC budget closing

Like all governments and public authorities of late, DC faces a large budget hole, which it needs to fill through cuts to services and/or revenue increases. DC should create a "menu" of possible fixes that exceed the gap and let residents choose among them, like WMATA did for the FY2011 budget.


Photo by KB35 on Flickr.

To address the last few gaps, the Mayor created a proposed budget, which precisely closed the gap through a combination of cuts to programs and added fees. Councilmembers then built a wish list of cuts or fees they wanted to remove, and they and the Council budget office identified other cuts or revenue increases that could offset those. However, this list remained secret.

A flurry of negotiation followed, and the Chairman's office released, sometimes at the very last moment, a new proposal that added and subtracted various items, and which they already knew had the support of enough members to pass.

The weakness in this system is that residents had virtually no time to weigh in, and Councilmembers found themselves negotiating the budget without really knowing whether they would stir up resident outrage at particular proposals until very late in the process.

At the urging of advocates, WMATA took a slightly different tack for the last two gap closings, the FY2011 budget and the mid-year FY2010 budget (the one that generated that 10¢ surcharge for a few months at the start of this year). WMATA staff proposed a number of different possibilities which, all together, went far beyond what was necessary to close the gap. They outlined how to close it with a minimal fare increase but massive service cuts, or a larger increase and no service cuts.

Riders had the opportunity to choose. It was painful, and many people are frustrated by the fare increase, but ultimately the final consensus had much more public support than it would have had the WMATA Board simply raised fares or cut service without giving riders much voice. We don't like the high fares, but we know we made that choice and that it was better than the alternatives.

The Council budget office has the chance to do the same, and incoming Council Chair Kwame Brown expressed a desire to include more public input into the budget decisions. The budget staff are already scouring the budgets of DC agencies for opportunities to make cuts, and studying possibilities for more revenue. They surely already have a plethora of ideas which go beyond the $175 million gap.

Instead of then prioritizing that list, taking the top items, and publishing that proposals, they can postpone the last step. Publish a larger list, equaling $300-350 million, and ask residents to weigh in on trade-offs. Most if not all of the ideas will be painful, but so is the reality of the budget. The least they should do is know residents' priorities as they make those difficult choices.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Good idea. But realistically, decisions are already being made by the budget bean counters because the current fiscal year's budget is already unbalanced and needs to be corrected ASAP.

Maybe in next year's fiscal year budget they can try something like this. But the problem is the very short time period between when the Mayor's budget is released to the public and when the Council has to vote on it.

by Fritz on Nov 8, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

I know they're semi-childish but the budget closing "games" where you can pick and choose the various tax rates, budget departments, etc. They may be simplistic but they really help the public visualize and understand where revenue comes from and how it's spent.

by Adam L on Nov 8, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

Fail. It would just be abdicating responsibility. We'd turn into California which is has always been stymied by their proposition system.

by beatbox on Nov 8, 2010 12:28 pm • linkreport

Comment fail by beatbox. I didn't say the Council needs to actually make whatever decisions people suggest; they should just ask before they decide.

by David Alpert on Nov 8, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

I think providing more information to the public is always good but as someone who works in a budget office, the time it would take for public comment would be counterproductive and probably lead to more draconian cuts later in the fiscal year. And as beatbox said, we elect people to make the hard decisions, not necessarily the popular ones.

by R. Myers on Nov 8, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

I expect their decisions would be better if they included this kind of public participation.

by Gavin on Nov 8, 2010 12:51 pm • linkreport

You are right. Fail for me.

by beatbox on Nov 8, 2010 1:26 pm • linkreport

I wonder how feasible it would be to create some interactive, web-based "simDCbudget" that simulates how much could be saved or raised through different budget choices, to give citizens a sense for the magnitude of the problem and the types of choices that must be made, and then to gather a sense of citizen preference regarding those choices. I know at least with the WMATA budget there are all sorts of suggestions (e.g. selling more advertising) which, even if successful, are still orders of magnitude smaller than the budget gaps, and if a tool could present options and choices, there might be a chance to push more of the dialog into the useful realm.

One could go further with a long-term budget picture, and imagine a simDCbudget that allows exploration of different development decisions, and how they influence costs and revenue in relation to the overall budget.

by thm on Nov 8, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

@thm There's something similar for the federal budget here.

I tend to fall on the side of less public comment, rather than more, in cases like this. The decision makers tend to assume that the noisy responses are representative of the general public, when that's not necessarily the case. I'd rather just elect good people and let them handle it.

Of course, that relies on having a media and electorate that pushes candidates, to explain their positions on the budget before the election, which sure didn't happen this cycle.

by jcm on Nov 8, 2010 2:07 pm • linkreport

The value in something like this comes not only from getting a little bit of insight into what people actually WANT to get rid of in the budget, but also to educate people about what's IN the budget and how much it really costs. E.g. educate idiots who think that earmarks make up a significant enough part of the federal budget that cutting them would do anything.

Personally I think it has more value for WMATA, to gauge interest in cutting service vs. higher fares rather than a city with a zillion budget items, but it's an interesting exercise.

by MLD on Nov 8, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport

WaPo made a (too?) simple budget simulator for FY2010:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/dc/budget-game/

by EJ on Nov 8, 2010 10:30 pm • linkreport

Just like with WMATA, it boils down to this- the city needs more revenue. Who among you is willing and able to pay significantly more taxes? Additionally, which services would you be willing to see suffer deep cuts? For instance, how about we scrap this latest move toward accommodating bicycles in the city? That would be okay by me, and save a lot of money. What say we stop creating redundant bus shuttle service that allows young whites to avoid having to ride on certain regular bus lines into new city hot spots like the redeveloped H street corridor? That would certainly be okay by me, but I suspect not so much with some others. Bottom line- we must accept either vastly reduced services, increased deficit spending, much higher taxation, or a combination of all of these.

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 8:31 am • linkreport

@Kevin: How would scrapping bicycle investment save a lot of money? As far as I can tell bicycle infrastructure is relatively cheap and does not wear out quickly.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 9, 2010 8:50 am • linkreport

The cuts would have to start somewhere. It just so happens that that investment, however small and effective in the opinion of some people, is way down on my personal list of priorities. I'm sure you can name some things you might cut that I would disagree with, but that was my point. government spending needs to be reigned in, and the choices are not easy.

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 9:01 am • linkreport

@KevinM

If you're going to cut spending, you cannot just look at the outlays - you must look at return on investment. DC's bicycle spending is a drop in the bucket overall, but offers a tremendous return on investment.

If you're trying to plug a huge budget hole, you can cut the bike spending - and you'll still have a huge budget hole. It's like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with one dump truck.

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2010 9:22 am • linkreport

Again- the cuts have to start somewhere- journey of a thousand miles, first step, and like that. Besides, what are the tangible returns on those investments? Are you saying that the bike rental program and the creation of all the bike lanes are profit centers for the DC government?

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 9:32 am • linkreport

The bike facilities increase mobility without increasing traffic congestion. This allows for more people to get to work faster, and for DC to attract more residents and jobs. It has a lot more bang for the buck than a bridge rehab.

Besides, those projects come from federal transportation money, so cutting it really won't do anything for the budget. The federal transportation money has to go to transportation.

by David Alpert on Nov 9, 2010 9:45 am • linkreport

@Kevin

"return on investment" and "profit" are not the same thing. For example, DC's portion of the CaBi system was largely funded with Federal Grant money. Cutting that funding does nothing to solve DC's budget gap - you can't use those particular federal funds for, say, social services. However, the modest DC local funds put into bike programs was able to leverage those federal funds and install the system - hence, a relatively small investment of local funds produced a huge local return on that investment.

The same thing applies to bike lanes - these are low cost solutions. Really, we're talking about paint and labor.

I'll put the onus on you - you've asserted that cutting these programs "will save a lot of money." Ok, show me.

by Alex B. on Nov 9, 2010 9:45 am • linkreport

If these programs were not deemed to be priorities, the feds would perhaps have more money to give us for other things that some might consider more important. I did not assert that cutting only those two programs would save a lot of money, only that programs would have to be cut and that those are where I might start. In fact, many programs and services would/will have to be cut, in whole or in part. What part of that is hard to understand???

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 9:58 am • linkreport

I don't know, Kevin, you said:

For instance, how about we scrap this latest move toward accommodating bicycles in the city? That would be okay by me, and save a lot of money.

So please show us how cutting the move toward accommodating bicycles would save a lot of money.

by Michael Perkins on Nov 9, 2010 10:03 am • linkreport

Kevin: The feds aren't going to give us more education money if we use less transportation money. That's not how Congress works.

There's a long-term bill that specifies a certain amount of money, from gas taxes and general funds, to go to each state for transportation. DC gets a certain amount of that based on its population, gas consumption, and some other factors.

It can spend the transportation money on repaving, streetscapes, bike programs, bridge repair, new roads, etc. There's no way that Congress would simply reallocate DC's money to give more to something else if DC wanted less for transportation. They'd just give DC less for transportation and spend more money on something else, or just cut down the deficit, or give a tax break to people across the nation.

by David Alpert on Nov 9, 2010 10:08 am • linkreport

For instance, how about we scrap this latest move toward accommodating bicycles in the city? That would be okay by me, and save a lot of money.

I'd like to see your numbers on that. Is that like the demagogues we were treated to during the recent primary, who promised us we'd balance the District's budget by shutting down dog-parks?

Reminds me of the Teabaggers running for Congress talking about how they're going to balance the budget by cutting taxes, and leaving Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, and Defense alone.

It's an interesting trick, and probably appeals to folks who know nothing about how money is spent, but not exactly a recipe for fiscal soundness.

by oboe on Nov 9, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

David, when you use words like "menu" and "choose", you're implying that the Council should give voters decision-making capacity over the budget, like how diners get to decide what menu items to eat. But then you add in comments "I didn't say the Council needs to actually make whatever decisions people suggest; they should just ask before they decide." So then you're not advocating for a menu at all. You're advocating for City Council to tell us what they're doing, not ask us what to do.

by tom veil on Nov 9, 2010 10:38 am • linkreport

tom: You quoted me saying "ask before they decide." Then you said I'm not advocating they ask. Where did that come from?

There should be a 3 step process:
1. Explain options.
2. Listen to feedback.
3. Decide.

A lot of government agencies seem to act as though either they decide, in which case they shouldn't ask for input, or they ask, in which case they have to do whatever the most people say.

That's not the way it works. They can solicit input, then make a decision based on a combination of that input and their own judgment. If there are 3 options for cuts and they need to pick 2, and they want to cut A, and other people say they prefer B to C, then pick A and B.

Why is this so hard?

by David Alpert on Nov 9, 2010 10:42 am • linkreport

@ David, I think in a more magical place, like say Portland, Oregon, having a menu of options that would allow the public input could work. I think the problem here is that we already have access through townhall meetings, roundtables, hearings, calls, emails, letters, Facebook, Twitter, etc., must we add yet another process to making decisions?

While transparency is a great thing and I think your idea has merit for other government-related decisions, I don't like the idea of letting our leaders off the hook. I think there is a point were it can be debilitating for government like in California were propositions have allowed elected officials to NOT make the hard decisions about taxes and services.

by R. Myers on Nov 9, 2010 11:00 am • linkreport

Once more for the hard-headed and stubborn among you- I did not say that cutting any one program would balance the budget or save any grand sum, only that those programs/services that I mentioned were where I would start. If anyone is saying that there would be absolutely no savings from cutting those programs, so be it. My point was that the cutting has to start somewhere. If not there,then will someone on this blog step up and say exactly where they would cut? Truth-to-tell, if we are spending any money creating dog parks, that would also be high on my list to cut.

David- If Congress does not work that way, then they certainly should. If no money was allocated to these programs I mentioned and perhaps a few others(that are low on my own personal priorities), then indeed there would be more to be spent on education and other things.

Why is everybody spending so much time making me out to be wrong- I'm just giving my own opinion. Besides, I'm right 97% of the time- the other 4% doesn't matter.

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

@ KevinM - I understand what you are saying - that everything should be on the table, even beloved cycling programs, of which I am an advocate.

I think where people are having difficulty is that you pulled cycling and other what some consider progressive items seemingly out of the blue and for some, implied that these items were wasteful. Whether or not that was your intent, I think the basic idea that the District may need to make sacrifices that are not popular in some areas for the greater good - without regard to what the masses may want.

by R. Myers on Nov 9, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

@ KevinM - I understand what you are saying - that everything should be on the table, even beloved cycling programs, of which I am an advocate.

I'm not even sure--given what others have said here--that cutting "cycling programs" (whatever those are) would save *any* money.

Capital Bikeshare is projected to *make* money after it's first two years. What else is there? Bike lanes? Traffic enforcement?

Arguing for eliminating cycling is like arguing that we should start our fiscal austerity by cutting down all the trees in the cities parks. After all, middle-class people like them, therefore they're a novelty, and eliminating them *must* save money somehow.

It's class resentment posing as public policy.

by oboe on Nov 9, 2010 12:45 pm • linkreport

This is a terrfic suggestion. Too often, the budget choices being considered are very narrow, and as noted these decsions often are made at the last minute behind closed doors. With revenue collections continuing to fall, letting residents understand possible budget choices -- where to cut, whether to increase taxes -- would contribute to a healthy budget disucssion and a well-balanced outcome.

by Ed Lazereg on Nov 9, 2010 12:47 pm • linkreport

I'll accept that the cycling thing is a money maker if you say so, Oboe, but then I'll ask one more time- will someone answer the question- what would you cut? Better still- in addition to cuts, how much are you willing to have your taxes raised? Anybody???

Thank you to R. Myers, who seems to get it.

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 1:02 pm • linkreport

I'll accept that the cycling thing is a money maker if you say so, Oboe, but then I'll ask one more time- will someone answer the question- what would you cut?

Based on this from the WaPo:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/dc/budget-game/

15% increase in income taxes
5% increase in property tax.
0% change in sales/excise taxes
Increase in revenue from Other.

Expenditures:
minor decrease in government expenditures
minor decrease in economic development
0% change in public safety
0% change in education
minor decrease in social services
0% change in public works

That gives $5597M in revenues and $5592M in expenditures.

Better still- in addition to cuts, how much are you willing to have your taxes raised? Anybody???

Absolutely. I'd be willing to pay a significantly higher percentage in taxes (is 10% enough? 15%) over the next 4-5 years if that were to mean a better financial position for the city.

Frankly, I'd like to see the federal government be more aggressive in aid to states during this temporary recession. I think it's incredibly short-sighted that we're not seeing that. But since we aren't, we're forced to tighten our belts.

In a similar vein, I'd like to see the federal government--and more importantly regional governments--kick in to handle the costs of regional poverty for which DC inevitably ends up holding the bag. But again, that doesn't seem like it's going to happen, so we're going to be forced to cut back on social services. Hopefully that will make the suburban jurisdictions more attractive destination for the region's poor and needy.

So, yep, I'm willing to kick in more tax revenue, and that coupled with tightening up social services, and the continuing gentrification of DC should put us on the path to a sound financial footing.

by oboe on Nov 9, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

Oboe- THAT"S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!!! Would that everybody else in the city felt that way. One caveat- that 15% increase in income taxes should only apply to folk making, say, over $150k annually. As for your suggestions about what the feds should be doing to help, that is unlikely, seeing as we unbelievably ignored our own best interests in this country and put the Republicans back in a position of some power. But don't blame me- I voted Democratic. Blame any and everyone you know that is a member of the Knucklehead(I mean Republican) Party.

by KevinM on Nov 9, 2010 2:51 pm • linkreport

I think you'd get more support for tax increases in general if there were some sense that it wouldn't just be used to increase social services, and import more poverty and dysfunction from the suburbs.

Given that we're one of the most liberal electorates in the country, I think folks understand that the money has to come from somewhere. It's just that many, many are wary that taxes will be jacked up, and that money will all be used to create more homeless shelters and methadone clinics so they don't have to be built in MD and VA.

Pass a four-year bump in the tax rates--on folks with a household income of $100k+--and freeze social services at their current rates, and we're back in the black.

by oboe on Nov 9, 2010 3:29 pm • linkreport

Citizen Summit!!

They did a budget exercise at the last citizen summit I attended (Williams Administration). It was pretty cool.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 10, 2010 12:56 pm • linkreport

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