Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Redmond’s new budget process

Though newly inaugurated Redmond Mayor John Marchione has only been in office for a few weeks, he is already changing the way City Hall does business.

One of his first acts was to introduce a new budgeting process Budgeting by Priorities is billed by the Public Strategies Group as a bottom-up method for determining the city’s spending allocations by conducting citizen focus groups to learn what people actually want from their city. PSG, which was hired by the city to manage the process, is due to present a draft of the focus group results to the City Council on February 28th.

For more information on the process, you can visit the city's website. Other cities that have used this process in the past include Spokane, Dallas, and Denver.

According to Jennifer Billig, a focus group facilitator with PSG, Marchione has wanted to see Redmond use this process for some time, but his predecessor, Rosemarie Ives, never tried it.

Declarations of respect for public input in city planning are hardly new, and must be taken with a grain of salt. Are they for real, or are they just empty P.R.? From what I can tell so far, Redmond’s process seems to be legit.

I first learned about the Budgeting by Priorities process when I was randomly called as part of the focus group selection process.

I attended an evening session held on February 11th, along with nine other Redmond citizens in a group that was balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, and geographic location. We were told that there were three other similar focus group sessions being conducted that night. We were asked for our goals for life in Redmond and how we would like to see progress on those goals graded, in order to determine the spending priorities for Redmond’s next budget.

The ten participants were each asked to provide five goals for Redmond, high level items such as “I want to feel safer” or “I wish there was more for my kids to do in the summertime,” rather than specific services the city could offer. We discussed ways the city could measure progress against those goals. The objectives our group came up with broke down into 7 categories:
  • Safety – People want to feel safer from crime, and want to feel safer on the streets and sidewalks with respect to accidents.
  • Transit & Traffic – People want fewer cars on the road. They want shorter trip times from their homes to common destinations such as churches and grocery stores. They want shorter wait times for pubic transit, and transit stops that are closer to their homes.
  • Road Maintenance – For the roads we do have, people want them to be well maintained. They want better snow plow and sand truck service on hilly residential streets.
  • Education – People want primary education that is close to home and of the highest quality. People want better data to help them know which schools will fit their kids best. People want fewer snow days and snow delay days due to road conditions. And of course, smaller class sizes.
  • Parks & Recreation – People want more ability to get around on foot and by bicycle with an expanded trail system. They want neighborhood parks to be clean and well maintained, and they want to know that money is being spent on parks and trails that people actually use.
  • Environment & Wildlife – people want to see undeveloped spaces preserved. They want to see urban watersheds protected by reducing the percentage of lot space that can be occupied by the footprint of a house. They want to see policies that promote access to locally produced food and an expanded farmer’s market. They want the city to be a pro-active leader on global warming by reducing the city’s CO2 emissions, being pro-active about securing Redmond’s water supply against the drier conditions that are expected to occur due to global warming.
  • Interpersonal Connectedness – People want more community events like Derby Days, more opportunities to interact with neighbors and the general Redmond population. They want a greater sense of connectedness with their neighbors and neighborhoods.
Three of those categories generated a lot of excitement among the participants in our group. First, transit and traffic was a huge issue with people.

There was a palpable sense that Redmond’s traffic issues have not just gotten bad, but have become intolerably bad in the worst cases like the SR-520 terminus at rush hour. They want action, and that they understand that more and wider roads won’t help; that we can’t “build our way out” of the mess.

People wanted mass transit both for trips from home to downtown Redmond, but also between Redmond and downtown Seattle. The support for improved mass transit was essentially unanimous.

Second, environmental and climate change issues were high on many people’s lists of important goals. The citizens of Redmond are absolutely clear on the reality and danger of climate change and they expect their city to do its utmost to help avert a serious climate crisis.

People like Redmond’s climate and environment, and they want to see the city government act to protect it. They’d like to see the city adopt regulations to promote local food availability because food that is produced locally has a lower carbon footprint than food shipped from around the world.

They want the city to convert its fleet vehicles to carbon-neutral fuels, and they want other alternative energy employed at city facilities where appropriate. Finally, they want regular status reports. They want the city to publish data on its annual CO2 emissions, with year-over-year comparisons, in much the same way that the city already publishes annual water-quality data.

Third, I was surprised by the prevalence of interpersonal connectedness issues among the participants’ goals.

The people in our focus group—myself included—recognized the car-centric nature of our city, and how that works to isolate us from our neighbors and communities. One participant in the group was a European immigrant, and contrasted what we have with the local neighborhood feel that you find in cities like Paris or Milan, where housing is intermixed with the types of businesses people need to interact with on a daily basis—grocers, barbers, restaurants, etc.

In those cities you can walk to most of your daily errands.

Redmond’s segregated model of putting housing on the outskirts and businesses in the central downtown means that almost no one in Redmond lives within walking distance of anything except, well, more houses. (The authors of Suburban Nation take great care to point out that modern suburbs are stupidly zoned into separate areas, which forces residents to drive every time they need to run errands).

On the whole, I was delighted to receive one of the random calls to participate in these focus groups.

They were a great chance to offer input into the city’s budget process, and a great opportunity to get a sense for how other citizens see our city and its future. NPI didn’t support Mayor Marchione’s candidacy last fall, but if he does truly listen and respond to the public's concerns we'll be the first ones to say we misjudged him.

I’ll be sure to follow this budget process and will blog it as it progresses.


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