“Man is the only kind of varmint who sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it.” — John Steinbeck
Though probably not intended as a political commentary, Steinbeck’s utterance perfectly describes the current California budget crisis. And, given the revenue and service delivery relationship between cities and the state, traps can be set and baited in Sacramento, leaving mayors, city councils and city managers to step in them.
This is what is happening today in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas (his childhood home is pictured), where the city faces a structural deficit of nearly $20 million, out of a $97 million general budget. Given the dramatic scope of the decisions it faces, the city government is taking a unique approach to finding solutions: gathering residents together in a series of facilitated discussions about the budget crisis. I attended one of these workshops in early April, where I watched around a hundred Salinas residents participate in a three-hour dialogue, and learned anew the challenges to self-governance, and its power.
The first hurdle attendees encountered was informational. From the size of the deficit, to utility users’ tax revenues, to what portion of the budget is spent on cops versus parks, it was evident that most attendees had little understanding about how their city government actually functions. This is not to cast aspersions on Salinas: lack of basic civic knowledge, especially of local government, is a national tragedy, contributing to uninformed discussions that easily turn partisan. Several participants came to the workshop with single-issue views about the police chief’s salary, or the amount spent on maintenance, but when faced with the full budget picture, and other residents with contrary opinions, they soon moderated their judgments.
Participants were forced to wrestle with the same difficult trade-offs as their elected representatives, and in so doing, learned that governing – even at the local level – is a complex process of moving interlocking levers. Using a program template developed by San Diego’s Viewpoint Learning, participants were presented with a set of three “visions” of Salinas, each with related service and revenue frameworks. A budget cut in a certain area has specific ramifications, as do tax and fee increases, but rarely do any of us participate in conversations where we have to confront such decisions. As Mayor of Salinas Dennis Donohue told me, “The gap between service expectations by the public and the public sector’s inability to deliver those services needs to be bridged.” This can only happen effectively when the public both understands and legitimately weighs its options.
Finally, as the dialogues reached the final hour, I began to sense a change in the attitude of those hundred or so Salinans gathered in a community college cafeteria. What began as a crash course in local government civics, and moved to the plate-balancing act that is a budget process, concluded with participants taking ownership of their city. A debate at one table about a sales tax increase moved into a discussion of, “What can we do to keep our young people from moving out of Salinas after High School?” When presented to the full group, this thought was echoed, with others extolling “What it is that’s great about Salinas,” wondering how this could be communicated, and what role they might play in improving their community.
Salinas is one of several cities around California, and around the country, employing this “participatory budgeting” process in response to painful fiscal decisions. Even cities as large as Philadelphia, with its “Tight Times, Tough Choices” project, involved over 4,000 residents in budget deliberations. Each has different elements depending on the size of the city and scope of the budget challenge, but those with the greatest impact do the following: accurately inform the public, engage them in a conversation that involves having to make legitimate trade-offs, and create a space in which residents can not only offer informed opinions, but actually participate in the building of their city.
It seems that budget deficits are yielding surpluses in local involvement.
Pete Peterson is Executive Director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan non-profit organization that supports civic participation around California. He also lectures on civic engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.