A representative view

Former Town Council member Julie McClintock, who also worked for the EPA, has participated in many planning efforts. She offers her reaction to the town’s priority-budgeting survey:

In a recent email from the Town, I was invited to take a budget survey to show “what [I] value.”

Since I’m an engaged citizen, I took the survey. I now have a queasy feeling about my responses and wonder how they might be used. I know it’s a tough budget year, and it’s reasonable that our town administrators want some idea of what people think before they increase taxes — something I’ve been expecting for a while, since depleting the town’s reserves is not sustainable.

The survey questions were indefinable and ambiguous, so I could not tell what I was ranking or how it applied to town services. For instance:

5. Rank each of the Town’s Safety Objectives from most important to least:

Regulatory Compliance – Ensures regulatory compliance in order to protect property, the environment and the lives of its residents and visitors
Emergency – Protects the community by justly enforcing the law, promptly responding to calls for service and being prepared for all emergency situations

Safe Environment – Creates a secure, well-regulated, well-maintained community that is healthy, clean, well-lit and visually attractive
Community Presence – Fosters a feeling of personal safety through a visible and approachable presence that ensures proactive prevention and responds to community concerns

If I want more police to deal with the rash of break-ins we’ve seen in Chapel Hill this spring, which one do I rank highly? From these confusing choices, how could staff make valid conclusions that reflect community values, the stated purpose of the survey?

So here’s my survey response. I expect Chapel Hill to be able to provide high quality public safety, waste/recycling collection and first-rate recreation. After all, we’ve been doing those things for a long time. I’m pleased the town re-upped our commitment to a premier public library. I like our free bus system — but now that we have embraced the regional transportation plan, the stakes are higher. In that context, I’d like to see a hard look at our local bus system to find ways to better service our residents — not just students and employees of UNC. Oh, I fully expect to achieve this without compromising the environment — particularly water quality — and in a way that enriches the quality of life for every homeowner who has made Chapel Hill their home.

I’ll add — although it never came up in the survey — that I fully support including community members in planning the density of downtown and the land use map for the 2020 focus areas in a way that does not compromise the taxpayers who are funding the town today. Certainly property owners in Chapel Hill have the right to enjoy predictable zoning and a development planning process that makes protecting existing properties a priority.

None of my priorities were evident in the survey — and now I wonder whether I should have responded at all. I wish that the Town and the Council had used the opportunity to communicate clearly and directly with its citizens. Instead, they seem poised to create a nebulous framework, which may be used to justify projects and initiatives that may or may not fit my values or priorities.

If the Town insists on using surveys to inform its policy, aren’t they obligated to design statistically valid surveys that accurately capture representative opinions about real world choices? Do I want my street paved? Do I want to see the stream protection ordinance enforced? What response time is acceptable for the fire, police or ambulance to get to my house? Those are tough choices, but since these are the real choices that need to be made, shouldn’t citizens be asked to weigh in on them?

Maybe I’m old fashioned but I’d prefer that the Town abandon the surveys and the priority based budgeting system and move back to the old way of doing budgeting — making hard choices. So go ahead and take the survey and say what you think. http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SGQRRXS.

— Julie McClintock

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9 Comments

  1. George C

     /  March 18, 2013

    I’m with Julie on this. I have yet to hear from anyone who thought that this survey was anything less than nebulous. After starting to take it I discontinued because it was clear that it would yield no valuable information and indeed could actually end up misrepresenting my views. I understand the Council’s desire to get a better sense of where the citizens want them to go but this survey was a poor effort indeed toward that goal.

  2. Nancy

     /  March 18, 2013

    Likewise. I took the survey and have no idea whether the town can divine my priorities from the selection of responses offered. If the town paid for a consultant to do the survey, the town would be within its rights to ask for a redo at no extra cost. The survey clearly did not do its job.

  3. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  March 18, 2013

    Did you notice how the survey ranks your choices for you once you’ve made Choice#1? A responder has to change the ranking pre-set by the survey’s designer. If the Town paid a consultant, they should obtain a refund.

  4. Del Snow

     /  March 18, 2013

    I would be interested in knowing if the Council had the opportunity to review the questions before this survey was distributed.

    I also would be curious if there is anyone at all that thinks this survey can possibly help CH to arrive at any priorities.

    Minds far darker than mine could think that the inanity of the survey was deliberate. A free do-over is in order.

  5. DOM

     /  March 18, 2013

    If we all complain together everything will improve.

  6. Many

     /  March 18, 2013

    Ahhh the ol’ “Double Barreled” Question:
    http://srmo.sagepub.com/view/encyclopedia-of-survey-research-methods/n145.xml

    You would think that the smart people in Chapel Hill would have taken logic 101…..or maybe they did.

    Oh BTW Del. In the area of dark minds, I freely admit to guilt on this one.

    Do you walk to school, or carry your lunch?

  7. Mark Peters

     /  March 18, 2013

    I agree that the survey in its current form is a waste of time, is nebulous, and could be used to justify whatever agenda someone had. I really don’t believe that is what Matt and others had in mind when they suggested priority budgeting.

    One of the more fruitful surveys we did at work was to ask customers if they had $100 to spend on our next software product release, where would they spend it? We then used that to identify pain points and areas of opportunity to direct future development.

    In years past, the CHCCS school board has published a list of cuts that would occur in 2 or 3 possible budget scenarios. This provided a starting point for public conversations to decide between cuts. This is what I envisioned when I thought about priority budgeting.

    The town should develop a similar list where folks have to make choices about things that are more real. Maybe every staff person should nominate a cut of things that they think are wasteful in their expertise and we can start with that. This would be separate from each department manager’s cuts. Tell us what the possible cuts are and the ramifications of each possible cut. (I recall the ramifications were not well explained the last time around regarding the pool staffing cuts).

  8. Terri Buckner

     /  March 18, 2013

    Maybe everyone should sit back and give the process a chance to work before advocating for its demise. From the Center for Priority Based Budget:

    “The underlying philosophy of priority-driven budgeting is about how a government entity should invest resources to meet its stated objectives. It helps us to better articulate why the services we offer exist, what price we pay for them, and, consequently, what value they offer citizens. The principles associated with this philosophy of budgeting are:
    • Prioritize Services. Priority-driven budgeting evaluates the relative importance of individual programs and services rather than entire departments. It is distinguished by prioritizing the services a government provides, one versus another.
    • Do the Important Things Well. Cut Back on the Rest. In a time of revenue decline, a traditional budget process often attempts to continue funding all the same programs it funded last year, albeit at a reduced level (e.g. across-the-board budget cuts). Priority-driven budgeting identifies the services that offer the highest value and continues to provide funding for them, while reducing service levels, divesting, or potentially eliminating lower value services.
    • Question Past Patterns of Spending. An incremental budget process doesn’t seriously question the spending decisions made in years past. Priority-driven budgeting puts all the money on the table to encourage more creative conversations about services.
    • Spend Within the Organization’s Means. Priority-driven budgeting starts with the revenue available to the government, rather than last year’s expenditures, as the basis for decision making.
    • Know the True Cost of Doing Business. Focusing on the full costs of programs ensures that funding decisions are based on the true cost of providing a service.
    • Provide Transparency of Community Priorities. When budget decisions are based on a well-defined set of community priorities, the government’s aims are not left open to interpretation.
    • Provide Transparency of Service Impact. In traditional budgets, it is often not entirely clear how funded services make a real difference in the lives of citizens. Under priority-driven budgeting, the focus is on the results the service produces for achieving community priorities.
    • Demand Accountability for Results. Traditional budgets focus on accountability for staying within spending limits. Beyond this, priority-driven budgeting demands accountability for results that were the basis for a service’s budget allocation.”

    The categories listed in this survey are the council goals and now staff is attempting to identify the communities priorities among those identified by the council.

    This is the best reference I’ve found so far:
    http://www.gfoa.org/downloads/GFOA_AnatomyPriorityDrivenBudgetProcess.pdf

    As with most new efforts, the first year is a bit rocky.

  9. Avanti

     /  March 22, 2013

    I agree with Julie McClintock and George C. and many of the other comments. The survey was poorly designed and poorly executed and I don’t believe the results will be useful – except as justifications for predetermined choices.

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