How Do You Get Your Community to Care About the Budget?

Mitch Foster is a Strong Towns member who serves as the Village Administrator of Winneconne, Wisconsin (pronounced Win-Knee-Con-Knee). Foster’s thinking on how cities should address their finances has been profoundly shaped by the Strong Towns message, but so has something else: his view of what role the public ought to play in that conversation.

It’s no secret to anyone familiar with local government public engagement that much of it is broken. Too often, we ask the wrong people the wrong questions, which don’t align with their insights and expertise, and leave everyone frustrated when the resulting input—predictably—isn’t used.

But how to get the public really talking about something as important and yet seemingly arcane as a municipal budget? To Foster, the answer was to speak the native language of his state of Wisconsin: beer.

Foster’s account of a “Budgets and Beers” workshop he recently hosted is an inspiring example of how Strong Towns members are out there changing the conversation in their own communities.

And we’re glad to know that we provided an assist: Foster’s workshop was inspired, in part, by an article we posted on Strong Towns about how to do public engagement better.

Want to be a part of this wave of grassroots change? Want more resources like the above article to help you along in that journey? Join our movement today. No beer required (unless that’s your thing).

I first read one of Chuck Marohn’s musings on the American experiment in suburban growth during what must have been my first year of grad school at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was a 22-year-old hoping to get my footing in a older professional-focused Master of Public Administration program surrounded by 30 and 40-somethings. I felt like I was missing something as I was taught that the “strongest” cities were those creating fancy business parks and subdivisions in farm fields. All of us believed that was the “best practice.” However, as I continued to read the writings of Strong Towns as well as other thinkers like Nassim Taleb, Bent Flyvbjerg and Robert Putnam, my mental paradigm shifted toward something completely different.

When I started my first post as a municipal manager I implemented strategies using small, incremental, and neighborhood-based methods. I tried the “classic hit” revitalization strategies, like using Tax Increment Financing to create a revolving loan fund, offering facade improvement grants, and promoting brownfield redevelopment. But some elected officials had other ideas. I serve at the pleasure of elected bodies, and they made the decision to attempt an expansion of the industrial park and build a new subdivision (without actual private-industry interest in either). I did my best to inform and work with the Board, but ultimately we parted ways, leading me to the back-to-basics path I’m on today.

Once I started as administrator in Winneconne, WI, I began sharing articles from Strong Towns with not only my Trustees but also with staff and the Plan Commission. There were many takeaways and all pointed to the same idea: start doing things differently! However, as with only a handful of introspective communities across the country, we started to realize in what bad shape our finances really were. My department heads started to see the writing on the wall: the structural deficit in our budget, the maintenance backlog on infrastructure, the simple fact that we could not replace vehicles and equipment in a timely manner. Things were going to have to change moving forward.

This realization lead to the formation of our Fiscal Year 2019 Budget, which we will approve this month. As financial issues continued to pile up, I was able to convince the Board and staff to expand the conversation so everyone, citizens included, has a chance to understand what is going on. However, as Chuck Marohn, Grant Henninger, Sarah Kobos, Dana DeMaster and others at Strong Towns have noted, our traditional public input methods are HORRIBLE! So we took a cue from Dana (almost her whole article!) and utilized a common language across the great state of Wisconsin: beer.

I hosted the first “Budgets and Beers” event in Winneconne at a local restaurant and invited the public. Advertising on social media and word of mouth brought 25 people in for Spotted Cow brews and a discussion about the challenges of the 2019 budget and beyond. I plan to hold more Budgets and Beers events in the coming weeks as a way to bring the public into the conversation.

If we want people to take an interest in our communities, we have to make it understandable for them and easier to participate. Once we are able to close this gap between what we need the public to understand and what they actually grasp about our city finances, we will move toward collaborative discussion and decision-making to make our communities more antifragile.

I cannot imagine where my career and the future of Winneconne would be without the informal guidance and hard work of so many people at Strong Towns, and I will do my best to make a difference in my community with that knowledge!

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