Published: Feb 23, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Feb 22, 2013 11:15 AM
The gears have engaged and the wheels are turning for the annual drive to adopt the Chapel Hill town budget. It won’t be an easy trip this year, because costs for transit, waste disposal, the new library, and employee pay and health care are going up.
The town is trying a new priority budgeting system to try to make budget choices clearer. But there are signs that this new vehicle is not yet ready for the road. At the Jan. 9 work session, the town staff presented a set of six goals and 25 objectives, asking each council member to rank them by voting for nine of the 25 on a paper ballot, without discussion. Two council members complained that the goals and objectives were so vague and overlapping that it was hard to know what they were voting for. But the vote proceeded and town priorities were set in about 10 minutes. These priorities are being used as the starting point for budget decisions.
When the priority votes were compiled for the council retreat on Feb. 2, there was at least one big surprise: the library was ranked in the lowest of the three priority tiers. This is odd, because both the council and residents have consistently given the library a high priority. The council has unanimously reaffirmed its earlier decision to enlarge the library building, a project now nearing completion. Surveys have ranked the library at the top of the list of valued town services, second only to public safety. And the library is the most heavily used and the most economical in cost per circulated item among public libraries in North Carolina.
Looking into how the ranking was done helps explain the outcome.
At the Jan. 9 work session, the town staff explained that the library supported three of the 25 objectives: 1. safe activities that provide for physical health and social well-being, 2. services to provide cultural, social, and professional enrichment, and 3. maintaining the town’s assets for financial, ecological, and social sustainability. For some reason, when the votes were summarized, the staff classified the library only under the objective where it ranked the lowest and left out the objectives where it was in the first and second tiers. The ranking system apparently cannot handle programs that contribute to more than one objective. This is a big flaw, because there are many such cases.
But the problem is more fundamental. The new broad, abstract budget goals and objectives don’t capture the reality of town services that are critically important to residents. Anyone spending time in the library, for example, will see children at story time getting the motivation to read that is fundamental to learning, students seeking help and resources for school homework, adults receiving computer training and getting access to job information, and low-income people who do not have home computers or the ability to buy books getting the practical and enjoyable books and information they want. Does using abstract categories like enrichment and social well-being clarify thinking about budget choices or muddle it?
The new priority budget goals and objectives may become a useful budget tool after more review and refinement to make them clear and to minimize overlapping. But until the council and the residents have time to understand and have confidence in a new approach, we would do better to talk about the things we do understand and care about: fire department response times, crime trends, availability of Parks and Rec programs, bus system priorities, and library hours.
Translating these practical concerns into the fuzzy priority budget goal language and then back out again to see what resulted is taking time away from the real thinking and discussion that needs to be done.John N. Morris is a veteran of state government and a member of the Chapel Hill Public Library Board of Trustees.
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