For 48 weeks or so every year, a fair number of Keene residents make loud and clear their dissatisfaction with how the city spends their tax dollars:
Another $30,000 on a consultant? Outrageous!
New staff positions? Unnecessary!
And don’t start on plans to buy property to develop! Just fix the potholes and stop raising our taxes!
Then, each spring, the city manager puts forth the budget proposal for the coming year, and the City Council starts debating it. To be honest, they don’t really debate in much depth. Most of the budget is tied up in paying employees and covering necessary expenses for needed projects.
Instead, the councilors mostly bicker over how much money to give area nonprofits that take care of people in the city. Despite amounting to about 0.4 percent of spending, this seems to be a hot-button issue here, and elsewhere. There are those who don’t believe tax dollars should be spent to support private agencies that feed or house the poor, or that provide counseling and aid for those with mental health, substance-abuse or domestic-abuse issues. We note the city actually has an obligation to help the poorest among us, under state law, and that these agencies do so much more efficiently and less expensively than if Keene had to add staff and resources to handle it.
Anyway, for four weeks a year, the City Council considers the proposed budget, discusses it, and votes on it. Every year, the council holds a single public hearing on the budget, giving residents a chance to weigh in. And pretty much every year, this is the time the public becomes silent about city spending. Typically, only a handful of residents who don’t represent organizations or departments receiving funds — if that — shows up to ask questions or make statements about the budget.
Perhaps the problem here is twofold; partly the fault of city officials, and partly that of the residents themselves.
One issue is that the budget has become overly complex. You’d need a degree in forensic accounting to fully understand the hundreds of pages, broken into dozens of categories, cross-referenced and written in almost unintelligible jargon. Whether this is intentional or not, it is certainly off-putting to John and Jane Q. Public to try to absorb. And the city doesn’t do much to help. There is a “citizens guide” to the budget on the city’s website that breaks down spending into broad categories, but even that doesn’t offer much context or comparative information. Under this year’s process, the council gives the public exactly one chance to comment or ask questions, then votes on the whole thing at its next meeting.
Then there is that lack of follow-through by those who spend the year griping at every expense. With very few exceptions, they don’t show up to give their input when they do get the chance.
Thursday, the City Council will hold its only hearing on the city manager’s budget proposal, which is for roughly $68 million in spending, plus about $4.7 million in new bonds for projects for the upcoming fiscal year. We urge anyone with a gripe — or praise — for the budget to show up and be heard at 7 p.m. at City Hall. It’s your only opportunity to have a real say in your tax bill (save, perhaps, for the county’s and school district’s similar budget hearings each year).
Having a single public hearing during a fluid, weeks-long process inherently limits the input the public is going to have. Especially when the discussion is on a proposal few have seen and even fewer would likely understand. The city could do a better job of explaining what the numbers mean, where there’s flexibility and how decisions were reached. Then, there is the opportunity to speak. One hearing on a Thursday night in May is hardly enough chance to weigh in on the most important decision the councilors will make all year. Many people can’t attend even if they want to. Others might want a say, but are reluctant to get up and speak before the council and TV cameras. This year, at the mayor’s urging, the council returned to having its lone hearing after the finance committee has finished its tweaks. But doing so means the public has no input for that committee.
The city has had success in gathering public input online through surveys. The budget should be linked to such a program, offering the chance to comment or ask questions — publicly, so there’s an actual conversation — before the council votes. It might be tempting to work through the budget with as little attention — and therefore as little opportunity for opposition — as possible, but it’s important that the council and city staff work to reach taxpayers and residents for input about decisions that affect them.
Then, it’s on all of us to pay attention and be heard.