More Civic Engagement and Transparency in the Municipal Budget Process

Our town administration makes a sincere effort to educate residents about how their tax dollars are spent. The town budget book has been enhanced each year to address common questions and detailed answers, and our Assistant Town Administrator/Finance Director Pam Dukeman does an incredible job both in terms of communicating and in managing our finances so that Westwood maintains a AAA bond rating, and has proactively addressed many items such as long term liabilities that other towns are struggling with.

What I want to solve is the feeling of frustration we have all felt as we attend a town meeting, sit for hours and then vote yes on everything. All the work has already been done. Even watching a Finance and Warrant Commission Meeting, one can feel that most decisions are already made and the big questions people have are not really just about the facts, but about the process. How can we afford to build a new police station and fire station with no override, but it took 3 years to find the money to fund repairing crosswalks? My taxes went up by 10% last year…where did the money go?

My idea is to 1) provide deep, detailed access to the budget process for those who want to really understand how decisions are made about spending their tax dollars, and 2) proactively engage residents with the most critical and relevant information to help them make their priorities known in time to influence the process.

An Exercise in Town Choices

When I was in law school and after serving as an alternate delegate for Paul Tsongas at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, I started one of the first local chapters of a grassroots deficit reduction group founded by Senator Tsongas called the Concord Coalition. We put together a community event called the “Exercise in Hard Choices” which involved people meeting for 2-3 hours on a Saturday morning at a local community college and working through federal budget materials to try to balance the budget. (see https://www.concordcoalition.org/budget-exercises) This activity engaged people in understanding the tradeoffs and the relative size of various aspects of the budget in a hands-on way that shifted the discussion from “why” to “how.”

That exercise doesn’t line up entirely with municipal budgeting. But I’d talk to the folks at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s civic engagement department, along with FinCom members here in Westwood to design something similar that would give residents who want to “get into the weeds” an opportunity to do so with real numbers and real issues relevant to them. It could also be a great tool for introducing people to joining the Finance and Warrant Commission.

Budget News You Need Now

Most people I talk to are not so interested in spending MORE time on town budget issues. They want critical information for when there’s a choice. This is where we need a different, more consistent, engaged approach. We could take the budget calendar and break it down into very specific communications designed to draw people into a discussion and put that in the Westwood Wire, post to social media and feature in regular updates (like a town finance blog?). We could also incorporate resident questions and feedback into this process by answering those questions and posting the responses.

The town staff I have worked with over the years have always been willing to answer my questions, but are not enthusiastic about engaging in something like a Facebook discussion. I get that and I agree that it would be completely unproductive to have our town employees being expected to spend hours responding to detailed questions on Facebook. I stopped doing that myself as a Planning Board member because I would just end up relaying information and possibly making a mistake and adding to confusion–and I cannot speak on behalf of the whole board or the professional staff who do the work that people are asking about. But I think we can use the town website in different ways to record these Q&As and make them searchable so that common questions and answers are available to everyone. The questions are important because they demonstrate the timing and context in which a question was asked and help to communicate the responsiveness and the back-and-forth process.

These are ideas…not a project plan. What I propose is to ask for residents interested in pursuing these ideas to join an informal working group along with town staff and board members to brainstorm and come up with some implementation items for summer and fall 2021 as the town prepares for the next budget cycle.

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