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Brea Involves Residents and Employees in Budget Decisions

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Community: Brea (Orange County)
Population: 40,016

Summary

As is the case with many cities in California, the small city of Brea is grappling with a substantial budget deficit due to decreasing sales tax revenues and other effects of the present economic recession. In the spring of 2009, faced with the difficult and controversial task of cutting staff or eliminating services in order to balance the budget, Brea’s elected officials turned to the community to help set priorities. Drawing on a tradition of more than twenty years of public engagement in Brea, city staff and officials began to involve residents in budgeting decisions through a series of public dialogues, surveys and a budget advisory group composed of 30-40 employees.

Process Highlights and Results

  • A diverse set of residents participated in facilitated public dialogues to identify their budget priorities.
  • A telephone survey provided additional input on resident values and priorities.
  • The intention is not a one-time process but a shift towards sustained resident involvement and input in local planning and public decision-making.
  • Local officials report that they feel more confident making budget decisions after asking residents to share priorities.

Lessons Learned

  • “It is worth the high level of effort it takes to carry out a deliberative public process. It might seem an overwhelming task to educate the entire population to a level where they can give useful input, but even if a small number of residents get engaged it can make a huge difference.” –City Manager Tim O’Donnell
  • Involving interested residents in local decision-making will build up community expectations for involvement over time, creating a local culture of participation that will benefit local officials and residents.
  • “The public often believes that most city decisions are made in backroom deals- that it is all preconceived and predetermined. Our mind is not closed on any issue until we deliberate, so listening to community opinions about how government operates has helped me to explain to people at public meetings why we are listening to residents and that this is not something that we have already made a decision on. The public in Brea is awakening to the idea that we are listening to them. –Mayor John Beauman

Resources to Learn More

  • Visit the City website and click on “Brea Line” on the left side of your screen to read the latest news on Brea’s budget dilemma: www.cityofbrea.net
  • Contact Person: Tim O’Donnell, City Manager, City of Brea, 714-990-7711 or timo@ci.brea.ca.us
  • Read Mayor John Beauman’s “Spirit of Brea” Blog at www.spiritofbrea.blogspot.com and his “state of the city” blog at www.johnbeauman2.blogspot.com

The Rest of the Story…

Brea’s City Manager Tim O’Donnell believes that meaningful involvement of residents in public decision-making is the wave of the future. “The explosion of technology in the last 10-15 years has given people the ability to exchange and share information so much more than before,” he explains, citing the rise of blogging, “Technology means local officials and staff can’t control the information anymore; the information is out there, so transparency is the only practical alternative you have now to get people all of the data they need.”

Like many cities in California, Brea has had to eliminate staff, programs, and services due to reduced revenues. Facing a 2.7 million dollar deficit in the coming fiscal year, Brea’s city leaders are reaching out to involve city staff and residents in making difficult and painful decisions as they attempt to create a balanced city budget. O’Donnell sees this civic engagement effort not as a one time thing, but as part of a cultural shift that is occurring in the community as more and more people recognize the role and responsibility of ordinary residents to participate actively in local governance.

The city uses a variety of approaches to gauge public values and priorities that will guide the city council’s final budgeting decisions. A recent telephone survey asked randomly selected residents how they felt about a quarter cent sales tax to help fund city programs. The city also solicits input from individuals by asking residents to comment on the budget via email sent to tellus@cityofbrea.net. While City staff recognize that surveys offer some advantages in terms of scientific validity and relatively low cost and fast results, more in-depth engagement is also necessary to get an accurate measure of public sentiment on something as complex and important as creating a city budget in the midst of a recession.

As a first step towards crafting a balanced budget in a collaborative way, the city manager asked city staff to volunteer to serve on a budget strategic plan (BSP) committee. Thirty to forty city staff members meet twice a week during work hours to discuss the budget situation, community priorities, and where to make necessary cuts. This group makes proposals that then go to the city council for approval or changes.

Two community-wide public dialogues have given residents the opportunity to weigh in on budget decisions and to share their values and priorities with the BSP committee. With a small grant from Common Sense California, the city was able to hire their recently retired police chief who now works as an independent public engagement facilitator and consultant to conduct these community dialogues with staff support.

The first dialogue, held in September 2008, involved approximately 25 residents in discussing big picture questions about how to approach the looming budget deficit. The second meeting, in late January 2009, attracted nearly 50 participants. This meeting began with information about the budget problem and how it has developed, as well as about the city’s collaborative budget process. Residents participated in facilitated small group discussions about what was important to them about living in Brea and what they considered to be “core” city services. “We need to understand their values around the budget so we can create alternatives for delivery that meet their values,” says O’Donnell. “The most useful aspect is that it gives the city council and the stakeholders some common understanding of the issue and process, it gives residents a sense of involvement in that process and attempts to make them a part of that problem-solving process in an atypical way.” O’Donnell reports that this process has increased resident satisfaction by letting people know they matter, they are being listened to, and that their city has its act together with respect to the budget crisis. He believes that the community is learning new ways of collaborative problem solving that can apply to other civic activities, and that this knowledge inspires people to get more involved with the civic life of their community. “I hope this moves people towards greater self reliance and accountability and gives people tools to get things done in their community rather than relying on the government,” says O’Donnell. He predicts that some residents taking part in the participatory budget process could become future council members.

Is it far-fetched to think that a typical resident might be inspired to run for city council after participating in a local public engagement process? Not according to Mayor John Beauman, who left a career in engineering to serve on the Brea City Council after participating on a resident committee to advise the city’s general plan update process.

Mayor Beauman recognizes the importance of processes that keeps residents informed, lets them know that city leaders are listening to their concerns, and helps local leaders know if they are on the right track. He says that this public engagement process has allowed the city council to feel confident that they are making decisions that make sense to the community. He has also made it a point to keep residents informed with timely updates on his “state of the city” blog.

The mayor reports that there is often an initial backlash when residents hear about cuts to fire or police departments because safety is a primary concern. Community dialogues have created a place to inform the public about how proposed cuts might or might not affect service delivery, and to discuss what other programs might have to be cut if the fire and police departments don’t reduce spending.

“We are taking a surgical approach to budget cuts rather than hacking away at funding for all programs in order to preserve the things that are important to the community while making needed budget cuts,” says Mayor Beauman. In this way, local leaders are hoping to preserve the “Spirit of Brea” in a time of recession.

Compiled June 2009


 

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