Last week, I received an email from my county government inviting me to utilize an online “balance the budget” tool to better understand the financial decisions the municipality faces and, ostensibly, provide my input. I was initially intrigued. This sounded like a great way to educate residents and involve them in the decision making process in an accessible way, especially as our county is currently facing a $20 million budget shortfall. However, as soon as I started using the tool, I realized how wrong I was.

My county's budgeting tool invites my input, then tells me that much of the budget (such as State & Federal Revenue) isn't actually up for discussion or debate. 

My county's budgeting tool invites my input, then tells me that much of the budget (such as State & Federal Revenue) isn't actually up for discussion or debate. 

After logging into the program, residents like me are presented with a basic summary of the revenues and expenses the county government currently has, and then given the option to use Up and Down arrows to increase or decrease funding or revenue for certain items, in an attempt to eliminate the $20 million shortfall. I was interested to play along, and explored the tool.

But soon, I realized that all the cute graphics and pie charts belied the fact that very little in the budget was actually up for any kind of debate. I was offered an in-depth explanation of the various cultural and athletic programs I could cut (most of which made up a tiny fraction of the county’s expenses) while being told that categories like State & Federal Revenue (which comprises 1/3 of the entire budget) were off limits to touch or even examine. I was also forbidden from cutting any more than 2% of the $23.2 million highway budget while being invited to shave off millions in county employee pay and benefits.

To give credit where it’s due, there was, in tiny type at the bottom of the landing page, a link to view the city’s full 2019 budget with more details about why we might be experiencing such a massive budget shortfall. I’ll also concede that, in a county with a budget over a billion dollars and almost a million residents, there is obviously a lot of complexity, and trying to collect every single person’s detailed opinion on the nuances of this budget would be impossible. That said, I don’t know that dumbing it down into a cute little game is any better.

My colleague Kea encountered a similar citizen input tool in her state of Missouri last year. That one was focused specifically on transportation spending, but it followed a similar pattern of presenting residents with very basic “Agree/Disagree” choices and asking them to rank their spending priorities in a simplified, biased manner.

Each of these tools is essentially a charade. Smart people are presented with black and white options, and told to pick between them. You either want to pay down the municipality’s debt or support the local university system. You either want streets for cars or streets for bikes.

The message these games send to residents is clear: We’re maintaining the status quo and everything is business as usual—but we want you to feel like you have input. That way, when we have to close a bunch of parks and lay off police officers, we can say this was the residents’ decision.

Instead of asking why our revenues can’t cover our costs, the county is simply inviting citizens to move buckets of money around—robbing one minor program to attempt to save another. All the while, we’re failing to really get to the root causes of municipal budget struggles. It’s not about how much we put into public pools or libraries; it’s about the way we’ve designed our cities in an ever-widening manner, with bigger roads, larger lots, greater distances between destinations and skyrocketing costs as a result.

So what can we do about it?

Opportunities to decrease spending on things like highways were limited to a meager 2% of the entire $23.2 million budget.

Opportunities to decrease spending on things like highways were limited to a meager 2% of the entire $23.2 million budget.

If you’re a resident and you encounter one of these “games,” don’t let your city toy with you. If there’s a place for comments within the game, add them. If there’s a contact person listed on the homepage, get in touch with him or her for a real conversation. And if not, track down the right person on your municipality’s website and set up a meeting or send a letter. Talk to this person about your real priorities for the community—the ones you know your neighbors care about, too.

Then invite your local leaders to reflect on why your city or county is in such financial trouble. Share with them that a budget shortfall doesn’t result from county employees getting a 1% raise each year and it isn’t solved by increasing the vehicle registration fee by $15. Rather, financial problems in your community are the inevitable long-term outcome of a fundamentally flawed system of development: we fail to plan for maintenance costs when we build new infrastructure, yet keep constructing more and more and more.

Make sure your local officials know that your community's financial problems will only be resolved when you start building a strong town that thinks carefully about every new expenditure and builds in a development pattern that produces enough tax value per acre to actually meet your maintenance needs.

And, if you’re a local leader or staffer who’s considering deploying one of these sorts of games, be intentional about how it's presented. Are you offering space for nuance and commentary? Do your multiple-choice questions give an “other” option? Are your own biases about what should be prioritized in the local budget affecting how you set up the game? Are you employing additional tactics to collect citizen input beyond this one online tool, such as in-person meetings, public comment gathering, etc.?

In the end, the solutions to our cities’ problems won’t be found by aggregating pre-ordained feedback into a spreadsheet or watching how people move dollar amounts around on a webpage. That might be the easy route, but it’s not the route to financial solvency.

No, the solutions we’re seeking will only be found when we actually talk to the people who live in our neighborhoods, asking where they struggle and discovering what small solutions might help them out. I’m guessing most would not say $23.2 million in highway spending is helping them in their daily lives, but you’d never know that by asking them to play a little online budgeting game.