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Daly City Engages Residents in Budget Planning

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As is the case with many municipalities, Daly City experienced declining revenues from sales and property taxes in 2009 due to economic forces and state “take-aways.” Faced with difficult decisions of how to develop a balanced budget, the city sought to educate and involve residents through four public forums designed to identify community values and priorities that would help determine funding levels for city programs and services.

“We want to know what you place the highest value on so we can take that into consideration when preparing the budget,” City Manager Patricia E. Martel told fifty residents who turned out for a Thursday evening community conversation in October, 2009.

The city held four such public forums over five weeks in the fall of 2009 in various parts of the community with 270 residents. In addition, a special issue of the city’s newsletter – with extensive information on city revenue sources, services and spending as well as a mail-in survey – was sent to every home in the Daly City. These materials and an online version posted on the city’s website helped gather informed opinions from those not attending the deliberative forums.

The budget survey was made available in Tagalog, Spanish, and Chinese so that residents still learning English could participate. Additionally, informational flyers promoting the forums in multiple languages were distributed to local community organizations and libraries.

Each forum was hosted by the city manager and city staff, assisted by an impartial third party facilitator from the Peninsula Conflict Resource Center. This facilitator in turn trained community members (graduates of the city’s citizen academy or members of city commissions, committees and boards) to act as small group facilitators and to record the input shared by participating residents.

Forums began with a welcome and background information on the city’s financial situation from City Manager Patricia Martel, followed by a visual presentation by City Finance Director Don McVey. Attendees were given an opportunity to ask direct questions to these and other city staff in attendance, and also to discuss alternatives and priorities in small groups while a volunteer facilitator recorded their input on large flip charts. Participants discussed the qualities of a good community, and what city services they were and were not willing to see reduced or cut.

“We will track the trends we see in the input from these meetings and the survey, as well as from an employee engagement process, and make a presentation to the city council in December on what we have learned,” Martel told the meeting participants. With over 270 residents participating in the community conversations and over 1300 surveys completed, this report will give the council valuable information about the priorities of their constituents as they make the difficult decisions and necessary trade-offs to produce a city budget.

“The most useful part was hearing what the public had to say in the absence of public officials,” explained the city manager. “They were comfortable enough to feel free to offer suggestions… it will be a little easier for the council to make hard decisions about reducing services since we heard in our public engagement process that people were willing to accept certain trade-offs in order to make sure that their highest priority services and programs would not be affected by the budget reduction.”

City Manager Martel was very encouraged by the high level of participation and that more than the “usual suspects” came attended the community forums. She says the city will continue to pursue public engagement and community building processes that inform residents and encourage them participate in constructive dialogues around other issues, including the often volatile topic of development.

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