Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Citizens of Walnut Creek Pioneer Groundbreaking Work to Influence the Results of their Government

'Spend' $500 to help Walnut Creek plan its budget

By Elisabeth Nardi
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/24/2009 01:25:05 PM PST

Spending a faux $500 may seem easy. But when it comes to choosing between a safe community, arts and recreation or maintaining city parks and open spaces — weighing those decisions may prove tough.

But that's exactly what Walnut Creek leaders are asking local residents and workers to do. Starting Nov. 30, Walnut Creek is inviting people to weigh in on what city services matter most to them by "spending" an imaginary $500 on services they deem important.

In a training room at city hall are several computers on which residents, on certain days, can use a computer program to "spend" $500. Participants can split up the money however they want among different goals and sub-goals. For example, a participant can put around $83 in each goal, dividing the money equally or spend the entire $500 under a sub-goal of "adequate "... parking options." But be careful; go even just $1 over and the "virtual bank account" goes in the red until you have balanced your budget.

This is the second phase of the "Community Conversation on Balancing for the Future," which began earlier this fall. The project aims to involve residents and those who work in Walnut Creek in deciding where the city's resources should be spent. The city is gearing up for a rough two-year budget cycle, with an estimated $20 million shortfall — on top of $13 million in cuts already made throughout the last year.

The first step of the program was held in September and October, when community members attended city meetings to help define each of six City Council goals. Now by spending money, residents are basically helping to give each goal weight.

"The reality is there is a 14 percent shortfall "... so (the resident's participation) will certainly help inform decisions," said Gayle Vassar, community relations manager for Walnut Creek.

The goal areas are a safe community; culture, recreation and learning opportunities; economic vitality; effective transportation and mobility options; stewardship of the natural and man-made environment; strong neighborhoods; and a sense of community.

City staff is separately ranking how various programs "influence the success of the six goals," Vassar said. Then the City Council will eventually help prioritize the goals and by extension the affected programs and services.

This process has been touted by city officials for the last few months as Walnut Creek faced multi-million-dollar shortfalls. Through various measures, including cuts to employee compensation, this fiscal year's $5.6 million shortfall was filled but city leaders have said that the next budget will likely hold even tougher decisions.

Reach Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617.

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