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City of Menlo Park – Budget Deliberative Forum Story

Case Story

Community:City of Menlo Park (San Mateo County)

Population: 31,490

Summary: “Your City/Your Decision”

In 2005, this south San Francisco Bay Area community faced a fourth consecutive year of budget cuts due to a 50 percent decline in sales tax revenue and an overall economic slump. Though the agency had conducted budget-related surveys in the past, these did not reveal public preferences related to real trade-offs and difficult choices.

Officials decided to undertake a community engagement process to help understand community priorities and solicit ideas to balance the budget. Staff worked with multiple consultants to develop a two-phase public process. An ad-hoc resident budget advisory committee assisted with process planning and outreach. This approach was carefully designed to include a full spectrum of engagement opportunities.

During the first phase, every city resident and business received a very detailed budget survey encompassing revenue and expense options. Staff used this data to develop potential budget-balancing options that could reduce costs, increase revenue or provide services through alternative means.

In the second phase of the public engagement process, community members were invited to deliberate on budget balancing options in three public forums. Nearly 200 community members worked together in small groups designed to simulate a city council. Participants were asked to choose among specific strategies that focused on the difficult choices to reduce the budget deficit to zero (or less). The exercise required each group to discuss options and develop a collective recommendation by voting on each strategy.

Elected officials used these recommendations to develop a balanced budget. Based on community input, the agency decided to include a utility user tax on the ballot, which passed by a narrow margin. The process was positive, staff observed, until the following year when the agency experienced a budget surplus. Several factors led to the unanticipated surplus, including deferred costs and savings due to staff vacancies. “People felt betrayed,” the city’s finance director observed. As a result of the controversy, the newly elected city council rolled back the tax and established a finance committee as a standing advisory body.

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