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Citizens to see where chips may fall at budget hearings

Friday, June 5, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Next week, the City of Austin will hold the first of three public meetings to gather input on how to cut the city’s budget. According to the last estimate, projected revenues will leave the city at least $30 million short.


Where should the city cut? In previous years, the City Council has held budget hearings but just about the only folks who showed up were those with a specific axe to grind—more often than not those who wanted the city to beef up funding for a favorite area. Others wanted to yell at the Council for spending so much money.


This year, Chief Communications Director Doug Matthews says things will be done a little differently. And the folks attending may have a little fun at the same time.


“We want to make it a meaningful process that people participate in, and something that really exposes them to the challenges that we face internally in terms of the budget,” said Matthews.


So those going to the budget meetings, beginning next Wednesday night at the Northwest Recreation Center, will not just be giving a three-minute speech. They’ll be working with other citizens using modified poker chips to come up with the best budget-cutting scenarios.


“We’re going to refine the list of (proposed) reductions into a list of about 30, the key reduction points, the key decision points, the service level reductions that people are going to be most interested in,” he said.  We’ll identify items like libraries, police, and parks, and each one of those services will have a rounded value on a chip.”


Matthews said each chip will represent a budget item, and the purpose of the exercise will be to reduce these chips by 10 percent. Citizens will be seated at tables and each group will have to negotiate their version of the city’s budget cuts.


“What it does is engage the table in a discussion about what important as opposed to each individual standing up and saying here’s what’s important to me,” he said. “They’re going to have to negotiate that with their peers…and give us that feedback.”


Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell said he may attend next week’s meeting.


“I think it’s a good idea to engage the community but I don’t know how definitive the information you get out of this exercise will be,” he said. “In the past, I think we had a scientific sample in asking people what their priorities are. And to me I think that’s a little more valuable. What we are planning will be valuable to know but I think ultimately the responsibility to make those decisions is not ultimately a popularity contest.”


The Council’s decisions, however, should be based on other long term considerations, like safety issues, he said. The results of the game playing will  be “a piece of the puzzle,” Leffingwell said. “But I don’t think its going to be like, ‘OK, everybody wants to keep the swimming pools open 18 hours a day all summer so that’s what we’re going to do.’ We know they want to keep the pools open but there may be things that other people think are more important—and we can all imagine what those might be—that aren’t necessarily as glamorous or popular.”


Leffingwell says his priorities remain public safety and social services, “Which I’ve said are two things that — especially in tough economic times — are things that we maintain because the demand for those things are up not down. You know the consequences are not necessarily things that can be addressed later. They have to be addressed at that time.“

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