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Concord Collects Public Input on Fiscal Priorities via “Penny for Your Thoughts” Community Challenge Game


Community: City of Concord, California
Population: 122,000


The City of Concord recently received the 2011 Helen Putnam award in the category of Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics and Community Involvement. The City of Concord conducted public engagement efforts in the spring of 2010 to educate the public about the city’s budget deficit through the “Penny for Your Thoughts” priorities game at the “Living Within Our Means” community workshops. The game asked the 310 residents who participated in the workshops to balance the city’s budget using 30 pennies distributed over five service categories. They were then asked to address a ‘deficit’ by removing six pennies.

The exercise helped residents understand the difficult choices Council members face when revenues decline. Mayor Laura Hoffmeister said that the “Penny for Your Thoughts” game seemed to resonate with the community, and many people expressed to her that they had a better understanding of the tough job faced by Councilmembers in balancing the budget.

Program Highlights

  • The City Council asked staff to develop a method to elicit prioritized lists of city services from residents. Four methods were used: three conventional methods (telephone survey, online survey, speakers’ bureau presentations) and the ‘Penny for your Thoughts’ community priorities game workshops.
  • Invitations were sent to all residents, special outreach made to business and neighborhood partnership groups. In total, 310 people participated in the workshops.
  • The “Living Within Our Means” workshops provided the City Council with meaningful information from the community regarding service priorities.
  • The public outreach effort and successful passage of the revenue measure allowed time to develop better cost reduction and revenue improvement strategies.

Lessons Learned

  • The City Council was able to develop a budget that preserved most of the high priority items based on community feedback.
  • The exercise resulted in the realization that residents might be willing to consider a revenue measure in addition to service cuts to balance the budget. As a result the City Council put a half-cent sales tax measure on the November 2010 ballot, with a five-year sunset clause. The Measure passed, receiving 54 percent support.
  • The City Council was surprised but happy to learn that residents wanted what was best for Concord, even if it cost them more money. The workshops increased public awareness of the difficulties the Council faces in balancing the budget and making service delivery choices with finite funding.
  • The workshops were successfully designed, facilitated and produced in-house, at a very low cost, avoiding fees for consultants or hired facilitators.
  • Concord residents liked the fun interactive workshop game, and were very willing to have a discussion with staff about why and how they made their decisions to fund city programs.

Resources to Learn More

Rest of the Story….

Faced with a $23 million decline in revenues the City of Concord cut more than $18 million in expenditures from the general fund budget; reducing the workforce by 25 percent, instituting mandatory furloughs, attaining pay and retirement concessions from employees and by reducing programs and services. Unfortunately these cuts were still not enough.

Considering the possibility of drastic service reductions, the City Council decided to get meaningful input from the public about which programs were of the highest priority with the goal to preserve those programs to the extent possible.

In addition to more conventional public engagement methods, staff designed three “Living Within Our Means” workshops for residents that included an interactive game entitled “Penny For Your Thoughts” where funding for city programs was put in the hands of the participants. In all, 310 people participated in the workshops.

The workshops began with an introductory Budget 101 presentation. Working in small groups, participants were given 30 pennies asked to review and prioritize five categories of city services. They were then told there was a budget crisis and available revenues were 20 percent less than expected, meaning they had to remove six coins from their cups. All of the penny counts and comments were recorded and compiled into a summary list for the community and City Council.

The primary goal of the workshops was to provide the City Council with meaningful information about service priorities. The goal was accomplished through the tracking, recording, and compiling of the results. The end result was the City Council was able to develop a budget that preserved most of the high priority items based on community feedback.

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