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Budget Workshop Results: We (Mostly) Want It All

The final report on the JCCI budget workshops has been posted on the myjaxbudget.com website, and the primary conclusion to be drawn is that, among those attending the workshops, we pretty much want it all.

Of the 178 functions of government that were voted on by the 351 people who attended at least one of the 8 workshops, 97 percent received at least 50 percent of their votes in the “Must Have” or “Should Have” categories.  In fact, the only function of government that hit the 50 percent mark in the “Don’t Want" category was Housing Opportunities For People With AIDS.

Not surprisingly, Fire Suppression and Emergency Response and Stormwater Engineering and Design both received 100 percent “Must Have” votes.  But so did Mosquito Control, which lets us know that people don’t like to be nibbled on when they’re having a cookout.

But perhaps that can be explained by the demographics of the people who attended the workshops. They were fairly evenly distributed across the four regions of town where they were held… ranging from 29 percent from the Arlington/Eastside region to 19 percent from the Northside of town.  They skewed older, whiter, better educated and somewhat wealthier than the county averages.  Many were also longtime Jacksonville residents, having lived here 21 years or more.

The 351 people who attended the workshops represented just 0.04% of the county population and 31 of those attended two or more of the workshops.  Granted, a small sample that may not be entirely representative of the county, and yet these were the people who are engaged, interested, and had time to attend the workshops.  “Self Selected” is the phrase used by JCCI.  And despite an extensive follow-up process on the part of the JCCI staff, there was a high no-show rate at the workshops, to the point where the city started over-booking the tables.  Even with all that effort, there were tables which had only one or two people voting at each of the workshops.

So where does that leave the city?  If the workshops are an indication, then the city is doing what it should be.  Eighteen of the functions of government received 90 percent or higher of their votes in the “Must Have” category, and only 3 received more “Don’t Want” votes than anything else.  In fact, 147 of 178 indicators received at least 70 percent “Must Have” or “Should Have” rankings from the participants.  Can we take that to mean that the city is doing the job that it should?  Based on these results, it seems like one could.  But balanced against a looming budget deficit, did the workshops accomplish their goal?

The answer to that has to be yes.  The goal of the workshops was to give citizens input into the budget process, and those people who attended were given that opportunity.  But in the comments received from those who turned in the comment cards, some mentioned that there were a lot of empty chairs, and that is a problem.

Overall, the budget workshops were very well received and were deemed to be worthwhile by those who participated.  Whether the results translate into anything meaningful for the budget won’t be known until the City Council reports out a budget.  But one of the comments that came through loud and clear from the participants is that the workshops should continue in the coming years, with even greater participation.  People did seem to take the workshops seriously, and enjoyed the opportunity to offer their input.

Participation, it seems, would be key.  But what has to be remembered is that every one of the 178 items on various lists voted on by the participants costs money… your money and my money.  It’s one of the things that both those who say the budget should be balanced by deeper cuts, as well as those who might propose higher taxes, need to keep in mind.  People want government to do a lot for not a lot of money, and finding that balance will be a difficult tightrope to walk.

2 Responses »

  1. Is this really surprising to anyone? This budget is going to require a LOT of very hard and UNPOPULAR decisions. No matter what is cut out of this budget or what actions are taken it is a good bet that about half of the voting public is going to be opposed.

    To get a truer response from the citizens on what should or shouldn't be cut the questions should have been structured wherein they were asking the participants to rank the various services in order of priority, not whether or not they were "wanted". If asked whether or not you "wanted" a big screen TV, a pool in the backyard and weekly garbage pick up it is pretty reasonable to assume that the answer to all 3 would be yes, but if asked to put them in order of priority and the picture would be a lot clearer.

    While the budget meetings accomplished the goal of "public participation" they accomplished nothing as far as resolving the actual issues. It isn't whether or not something is "wanted" that is important, it is what is "needed" that should determine it's place in the budgeting process.

  2. The budget sessions were a good first step in educating taxpayers and, at the same time, leveraging taxpayer expertise. By design, these initial sessions were limited to the relative want/need for certain functions which is useful information to the city and taxpayers. It is likely that taxpayers will be able to better define their relative wants/needs for services as these sessions develop over time.

    What needs to be added to the sessions is a discussion of how the cost of such services can be delivered more effectively. For example, at the JSO session I attended (along with only two other particpants, both of whom were from the city) we recommended that the prisons/jails administered by the JSO be privatized if such a tool was cost effective. More time needs to be given for such discussions. There was little time to cover the cost of delivery for JSO functions like the use of patrol cars off-duty, use of part time help, deployment of patrol forces, definition of union vs. non union employees and related compensation and benefit levels, organization layers etc.