By Andrew Tellijohn
Communicating with residents about city budgets and other financial information can be a challenge. The key, city leaders and consultants say, is to emphasize the big picture. Focus on a few of the big ticket items, find simple ways to illustrate the impact on citizens, and get away from presentations based solely on pages filled with dense numbers.
It’s also important be open, honest, and transparent with residents about long-term plans, says Nick Anhut, a municipal advisor with financial consulting firm Ehlers Inc.
“The focus of the discussion becomes a little more personal and more salient when it focuses on what type of goals we’re trying to achieve,” Anhut says. “What do we have to pay for? What is the tangible benefit? You tend to get a better response when you focus on those and when you focus on not just the near term, but four or five years out.”
Getting past the numbers
In some cases, it can be difficult for cities to get residents to pay attention during the budget process. If you’re just throwing out numbers and giant spreadsheets, eyes tend to glaze over and people tune out.
It’s important to make sure information is communicated in a way that engages people, Anhut says. Instead of focusing on budget books in their complex entirety, cities can provide shorter summary documents that hit on high points.
The presentations also should focus more on the fundamental reasons why budgets, levies, or property taxes may have changed. Citing a couple examples of bud- get drivers may produce better results.
Graphics or short blogs on your website are examples of good ways to get your budget messages out in simple, easy-to-read formats.
Make sure you’re “describing where the pressure is coming from,” Anhut says. “I think people only require [financial] information when something is being asked of them, or when there is actually an increase proposed and it becomes real and tangible.”
St. Peter communicates in many ways
Whether it’s the web or more traditional methods of communication, some city officials say they try to communicate to their residents in multiple ways and have found at least some level of success in doing so.
With a population of just under 12,000 residents, the City of St. Peter is relatively small, but it puts a big effort into communicating with its residents. It has an electronic newsletter called the Hot Sheet, where it publishes information on many issues, including the budget. Each issue has two to four articles explaining specific issues, such as local government aid from the state and how the city’s allotment affects residents’ property taxes.
The Hot Sheet has been around for nearly two decades. It has wide distribution—local newspapers often pick up items almost word for word, and some local businesses and business organizations print and redistribute the information. Gustavus Adolphus College, located in St. Peter, also distributes it to employees.
The Hot Sheet comes out about 50 times per year—and when it doesn’t, the city’s residents notice.
“If we have a week when it doesn’t come out, during the holidays, we do get people who call or ask where the Hot Sheet is this week,” says City Administrator Todd Prafke.
Small, digestible pieces
Recently the City Council discussed an aggressive sidewalk replacement program that would have a significant impact on its levy. That issue was covered in the newsletter. As the annual budget dates approach, St. Peter staff will begin writing articles on various aspects of how that is being assembled.
“We cut up that budget narrative and put it in a little less wordy, more easily digestible format,” Prafke says.
It’s one of several steps the city staff take to communicate important financial issues and other topics to the city’s residents.
They also use a public access bulletin board, their local public access channel, Facebook, a video blog on the city website, and the St. Peter YouTube channel.
And the city puts audit reports and other financial documents on its website for those who want to read through them in their entirety. Prafke admits the messaging doesn’t reach everyone, but for those who are paying attention, they can usually find the information they want.
It’s a challenge determining which issues to cover, he adds. Big-ticket items aren’t always the ones the community finds most important. At times, it could be the replacement of a squad car or the replacement of a roof on a public building that pushes buttons. But St. Peter officials put a lot of eff ort into being transparent and giving residents budget information in a variety of ways.
Budget open house video
A few years ago, when tried-and-true measures were becoming consistently unsuccessful in communicating with residents, Burnsville city officials decided to seek out new methods.
The city of nearly 62,000 residents stopped conducting its annual budget “open house” meeting—which typically required around 16 employees, but drew less than a handful of people—and replaced it with a 15-minute video open house that provides an overview of the city’s budget for the coming year. City communications employees work with Burnsville Community Television to produce the short budget videos.
The video open houses use lots of visuals and layman’s terms so residents know how their tax dollars will be used to fund city services. Over the last couple years, the video presentations have drawn more than 100 views on the city’s website, says City Manager Heather Johnston.
Burnsville also announces its budget hearings well in advance so residents can engage in the discussions, Johnston says. The talks start with general overviews as early as June and, as the City Council hones in on decisions, the meetings get more specific on how the typical taxpayer might be affected.
Video recordings of these meetings, along with PowerPoint slides, are available on the city’s budget process web page, which features information about the bud¬get for the upcoming year. Other features of the page include an invitation for residents to submit comments on the budget, the schedule of budget meetings, and property tax assistance resources.
In addition, Burnsville includes a link to the League of Minnesota Cities video Special Delivery: City Services and Your Property Taxes, which is designed to help residents better understand the local property tax system.
“The key is to do a combination of approaches,” says Johnston. “We do get a few comments on the budget every year. That shows we’re getting the information out to make sure we’re being transparent.”
Building trust in Two Harbors
Transparency has been one of the key drivers behind Dan Walker’s efforts since he became city administrator in Two Harbors about two years ago.
City staff have been working on establishing a capital improvement plan for street repairs and capital purchases. And Walker has proactively reached out to have discussions with a local reporter to ensure that the city’s newspaper gets the word out about the capital improvement plan to as many people in the community as possible.
This city of 3,700 has never had a capital improvement plan, and Walker wants to help build trust within the community.
He welcomes discussions with the reporter because it will help ensure she’s getting accurate information, he says. “That’s kind of my philosophy. She’s going to write a story about it anyway. Give her enough information to write facts rather than coming up with a conclusion of her own.”
Planning has been in the works on this capital improvement plan for about a year. It’ll cover the city’s plans for about a five-year period. Walker knows that many residents are intensely curious about what is going on, especially with him being new, and he knows from previous experience that, especially in small communities, word travels fast.
With open resident communication, he can relay an accurate message before a false rumor “gets down to the cafe,” he says. “By the time it gets down to Judy’s for coffee, it’s 10 steps from the truth.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.
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