The town’s financial director, Ken Pennoyer, will give a presentation at Monday night’s meeting that involves shifting some unexpected leftover money to where it’s needed most. Some projects cost less to complete, enough so to more than make up for the projects that went over-budget.
Throughout the spring, council will work on a budget for Fiscal Year 2017, which starts July 1, 2016. We’ll hear from nonprofits that want the town to support their good work, and from private citizens about how to prioritize spending. Given that 84% of the property tax revenue comes from residential property owners, they have a strong voice.
As council members, we’ll aim to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money and make spending decisions that will serve the interests of our diverse residents. But setting aside our personal priorities in favor of the values of town residents can be very difficult, and council members approach the task with different levels of commitment to putting town values first.
At the final session of the UNC School of Government’s training for public officials last month, we played a simulation game in which we divided up into faux councils to make budget decisions for our imaginary town. The facilitator made sure we were not sitting with anyone whom we serve with on a board in real life, and given how tempers flared as the game progressed, I could see her point.
First we chose values for our town. Immediately, our individual viewpoints asserted themselves. I found myself arguing for affordable housing and environmental issues to a group of men from small towns where all the housing is cheap and they’re surrounded by greenspace. They emphasized jobs and well-maintained streets, because they had no public transportation system.
Our game board showed the expenses traditionally covered, and we were given a revenue figure too small to pay for everything. We began to look at what to cut. At first, we were able to come up with some low-hanging fruit, picking up recycling monthly instead of weekly, for instance. But as the cuts deepened, we abandoned our town values and argued for what mattered to us individually. When I suggested closing the senior center because “Family Friendly” was not one of our town’s values, one of my faux colleagues rose from his seat, leaned across the table and growled, “You can’t close the senior center!” (Did I mention that almost all of the others at my table were retirees?)
The exercise gave me a sense of the passion we likely will bring to setting a budget for Chapel Hill. I hope we will all stay seated, but I expect we may occasionally raise our voices. And as in marriage, a robust discussion that clearly lays out differing views can end in decisions everyone can live with.
– Nancy Oates