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Chalking Up a Positive Budgeting Experience

August 25, 2016  |  Pamela A. Keene
The budgeting process can be challenging, especially when a municipality has spent its reserves during the Great Recession and has lost revenue from a major employer. But, the city of Hapeville—just south of Atlanta—has found the key for developing and implementing its annual budget as a living, breathing plan that’s responsive to citizen- and staff-based input.
 
Hapeville residents and city staff work together to provide input for the city’s budget.
Through a process called the Citizen Chalkboard Budget Workshop, city officials convened groups of residents and staff to solicit feedback and help adjust priorities in developing the FY 2017 budget of more than $21.4 million.
 
“We took a double blow when the Ford plant closed in 2006 and then the Great Recession hit,” said Hapeville City Manager William R. Whitson, who came to Hapeville a little more than a year ago. “We had spent down most of our reserves and realized that we had to go in a new direction. In other towns I did a citizen-input process, so we chose to use it here. The results were very positive for us.”
 
The process began in February—thanks in large part to the city’s intern Hunter Bradshaw, studying for his Master’s in Public Administration at Georgia State—and concluded with a comprehensive report to city council in late June.
 
Hapeville City Manager William R. Whitson leads a Citizen Chalkboard Budget workshop.
“Hunter, under my direction, managed many of the details so that we could move forward with our ongoing work,” Whitson said. “We had no additional staff, so he did much of the research from February to April when we conducted the workshops.”
 
The city hosted two 2-hour sessions, one in the morning and one after work, to maximize attendance. More than 35 residents and staff took part. For the first 45 minutes, city officials presented instructions and an overview. Then attendees broke into smaller working groups led by experienced staff to capture ideas, comments and suggestions on flip charts.
 
“No idea was a bad idea, and this gave us the opportunity for real engagement,” Whitson said. The attendees reconvened and reported their findings to the group. “We also captured comments and questions from attendees that may not have been directly related to budgeting issues, and we researched and compiled the responses in a document that was distributed to all attendees. Each of nearly 100 questions and comments received a response within a couple of weeks.”
 
At the end of June, the city council heard the results of the workshops in a PowerPoint that’s also posted on the city’s website. “The process really helped us readjust some priorities through some healthy exchanges,” Whitson said. “For instance, we realized that some of our capital projects that had been on back burners needed to be moved up, such as getting generators for the police department. We also re-prioritized vehicle and equipment needs to the FY 2017 budget year. And because of the process, this coming year, we’ll be able to do a little something toward raises, which hadn’t happened in almost a decade.”
 
The city has also earmarked money for the reserve fund. “All this will happen without an increase in the tax rate,” Whitson said. “It will come from growth in revenues.”
 
Whitson admits that budgeting can be a boring process, but that the Citizen Chalkboard workshop made a significant difference. “The input from residents and staff was invaluable, and it’s a wonderful way to encourage citizen engagement. I’d like to see this become an annual exercise so that people actually get to touch the budget and be heard.”
 
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