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It Takes a Community (and Some Smart Investing) to Create the Shining City on a Hill

To become that shining city (or county) on a hill, or to make that "Best-Places-to-Live" list, communities must successfully implement a vision. This requires investing limited resources wisely for the community as a whole, including some wise investing in key community infrastructure. Parks, trails, gathering places, schools, public safety facilities, and well-functioning transportation and communication networks are a vital part of community quality. They are the features that attract residents and businesses to a community. At first glance, capital facilities (improvements) planning may not seem as alluring as visioning. Yet, there is considerable evidence that capital facilities planning can be a more powerful tool than zoning to implement a community’s grand plans. Remember the sprawling, linear development that sprang up in the wake of sewers and freeways?

A community’s capital facility wish list will always be longer than the resources available to pay for them. As a result, local officials must make choices in the face of competing interests. Local officials need to hear from a broad range of citizens to establish capital improvements priorities that support the kind of community citizens want. Citizens (at least informed citizens) are the best source of information about the services and facilities they most value. Citizen engagement is essential to the credibility and community support of the capital budget. Polls indicate that citizen anger over taxes may not be so much about taxes per se as the feeling that they have little influence over tax dollar spending. They may suspect that special interests drive local decisions. That feeling grows if the only opportunity for citizen comment comes late in the process, when the capital budget is a done deal. To retain legitimacy, local officials must communicate with and listen to citizens early and often.

Given the importance of capital facility planning, it is paradoxical that many a council chamber is packed to the brim when a hot zoning issue arises. Yet the chambers are more sparsely populated when capital budgets are the main event. At public hearings, local officials are more likely to hear from a small number of vocal citizens or those organized to support or oppose particular improvements that affect their neighborhood or business. It’s challenging to get citizens to focus on the bigger picture of making capital improvements choices that support the community’s plans and make the community as a whole a better place. Focusing only on filling potholes is not the path to the shining community.  Similarly, it’s a challenge to reach a representative cross-section of residents.

As a first step, it is important to educate citizens about the capital budget process and the realities of limited dollars, diverse interests, and necessary trade-offs. They are then better able to knowledgeably discuss and offer informed opinions about spending priorities. In turn, local officials can reach capital improvements decisions that are more responsive to citizen preferences.

There are many citizen involvement approaches, beginning with the traditional public hearing. They include information/education efforts, surveys, CIP advisory committees, capital improvements-focused workshops, focus groups, neighborhood-oriented meetings, and deliberative forums. In my opinion, effectively presenting good information to citizens (not just dry lists of numbers) should be a part of every involvement program. Capital budget simulation exercises can be helpful in understanding choices, constraints, and tradeoffs. Since CIP issues are complex, an advisory committee or task force approach, which allows citizens to become well-versed on issues, is worth considering. Focus groups or neighborhood workshops may better capture the viewpoints of diverse community groups and can provide opportunity for a two-way dialog. A combination of approaches is likely needed.

I have compiled a number of resources and examples of successful local government outreach approaches. Here are a few:

Making CIP information available and understandable:

  • Portland, Oregon – Capital Improvements: An Overview – User-friendly explanation of capital improvement programming, benefits, connection to the budget, and process.
Surveys Capital Improvement Advisory Committees Public Forums

  • Pinellas County, Florida – 2012 Budget Public Outreach Report – A telephone town hall greatly expanded FY 2012 budget citizen participation (more than 10,000 contacts with public web views, blog entries, and phone) beyond that of two public forums held in different parts of the community. Describes meetings, compiles comments, and marketing to increase participation.

  • Multnomah County, Oregon – A 2011 community budget forum allowed citizens to discuss priority services and features in small groups and to provide feedback.
Interactive Budget Challenge/Simulation Tool

  • Denver, Colorado – In addition to a task force and public forums where citizens could register opinions with keypad polling devices, the city developed Delivering Denver's Future, an interactive tool asking citizens to weigh in on specific budgetary choices. (Select "Get Started – Step 1" to try it).
Neighborhood/Subarea Meetings

King County, Washington Giving voice to residents in King County's unincorporated areas – King County is creating community service areas as a public engagement framework and will annually develop a work program for each area in collaboration with residents. An interdisciplinary team assigned to each area will be responsible for coordinated service delivery.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Sue Enger

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.