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Walnut Creek Uses Community Dialogues to Inform Difficult Budget Decisions

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Public engagement session in Walnut Creek

Community: Walnut Creek (Contra Costa County)
Population: 65,348 (2008)

Summary

The economic downturn forced local officials in many California cities to cut staff and programs in order to balance their budgets. Even cities with a relatively well-off population faced difficult choices due to falling revenues. The City of Walnut Creek faced the unpleasant task of cutting programs in 2009 due to budget shortfalls, and the more unpleasant task of explaining this to the public. Building on an ongoing tradition of collaboration with residents and community building programs, city staff and officials gathered information from residents in a process dubbed “Community Conversation on Balancing for the Future,”. This helped city officials create a budget that reflected the values and priorities of the community.

More recently, city officials formed a Fiscal Health Task Force whose purpose it is to provide detailed community input by studying the full range of fiscal issues and making the recommendations to the City Council in a full report in November 2011.

Process Highlights & Results

  • City staff worked with consultants to adopt a Fiscal Health and Wellness prioritization process endorsed by the International City/County Management Association, the National Association of Counties, and other nonprofits
  • Over 130 residents participated in one of five facilitated “Community Conversations” in the fall of 2009. These three hour sessions involved educational presentations, a facilitated “appreciative inquiry” process, and a “Green Screen” goal definition exercise.
  • About 170 residents participated in a “Virtual Bank Account” exercise in December 2009. During this part of the process, participants decided how they would invest a virtual $500 on priority goals set by Council and defined by the community.
  • The Fiscal Health Task Force, formed in 2011 and consisting of 15 community members, focused on four areas:
    • Revenue preservation and enhancement;
    • Delivery of service;
    • Capital improvements;
    • Demographic changes and growth.

    Fiscal Health Task Force is anticipated to provide detailed community input by studying the full range of fiscal issues and making the recommendations to the City Council in a full report in November 2011.

Lessons Learned

  • It takes time to engage the community. Don’t underestimate the importance of pre-planning. You have to spend time planning and get input from a broad range of people in the planning stages.
  • It can be challenging for local leaders to give up control and be true partners with the community. It is important that decision-makers trust and support the process.
  • Aligning spending with community’s priorities increases community confidence.

Resources to Learn More

  • Community Task Force on Homelessness
  • Walnut Creek city council meetings and the mayor’s state of the city address may be viewed at www.walnutcreektv.org
  • For more information, contact Gayle Vassar, City of Walnut Creek Community Relations Manager, at 925-943-5895 or vassar@walnut-creek.org.

Rest of the Story…

With a longstanding tradition of community building and engagement, local officials in Walnut Creek knew that they needed to reach out to residents and ask them to be partners in addressing the current economic problems. With over 400 local graduates of the city’s citizen institute program and over 1000 people trained by the City in emergency preparedness, community relations manager Gayle Vassar created a sizeable email list of active community residents to tap into the ongoing working partnership between residents and city staff and officials.

In the spring of 2009, city staff and officials organized three ninety minute meetings with community partners. Over 100 active residents participated in these discussions designed to educate people about the City’s financial situation, and about upcoming Community Conversations to engage a broad cross section of the community in defining and prioritizing goals to inform critical budget decisions. Residents were asked to continue participating in the budget prioritization process through a virtual bank account exercise in December of 2009. About 170 residents participated in this exercise at city hall.

In early 2011, city officials formed a Fiscal Health Task Force whose purpose it is to provide detailed community input by studying the full range of fiscal issues and make recommendations to the City Council.

 

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