When a city solicits the public for solutions to its budgetary woes, it generally means one of two things: (1) Elected officials want constituents to grasp the seriousness of their predicament, or (2) they've thrown up their hands and are willing to consider anything.
Let's assume the former in the case of Walnut Creek, which has spent the last three months touring its road show -- "Walnut Creek's Fiscal Future" -- before service clubs, homeowners associations, business groups and anyone else willing to sit through an hour of numbers and pie charts.
City Manager Ken Nordhoff reports that he and his staff appeared before 13 community groups and more than 400 residents, carrying the message that Walnut Creek's expenses will exceed revenues in each of the next eight years unless remedies are found. A key part of each presentation was a search for feedback, beginning with this question:
If you were on the City Council, which "budget balancing tools" would you use to balance the 2014-16 budget, and why?
a) Raising fees;
b) Using one-time money;
c) Using reserves;
d) Finding news ways to deliver service/contracting out;
e) Cutting or eliminating programs/services;
f) Buying lottery tickets.
OK, the last option wasn't one of the choices. That was my idea.
The search for ideas was very much part of the presentation, and participants were generous with their suggestions. A half-cent sales tax increase received the most support, which likely was the point of this exercise all along, followed by more economical service delivery and program cuts.
But by no means did residents' feedback end there. Once Walnut Creek brains were kick-started, it was like turning on an idea machine:
They weren't necessarily practical ideas, but there were a lot of them. The feds, who fund the bomb squad operation, might not appreciate the city profiting off it. Neighboring cities could start erecting their own fences if Walnut Creek starts charging admission, and I'm not sure anyone's ready for Mercedes-Benz of Walnut Creek Heather Farm.
But no idea is a bad one, as discussion facilitators say.
One proposal that surprised me was rescinding the city ordinance that bans plastic bags and charges for paper ones. The rationale is that the city will miss out on sales taxes if people opt to "shop elsewhere." My surprise is I thought these ideas were from residents. This sounds suspiciously like a suggestion from Councilman Justin Wedel, a bag-ban opponent.
The questionnaires that residents filled out didn't ask just for budget-balancing solutions. They also asked how the city might increase residents' awareness of its fiscal situation.
One suggested handing out fliers at apartment buildings. Another wanted posters hung on city facilities. Someone hoped newspapers would write more about the topic.
Happy to oblige on that score. The rest is up to the city.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.