I sat with a few strangers the other day to work on the Mecklenburg County budget. We were told our ideas would be passed on to Mecklenburg County Commissioners as they work on the budget for FY13 in coming months.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
County employees from the budget department let us use a new tool they’re developing called “I can build a better budget.” Basically, you go line by line in the budget and decide if you want to increase or decrease the funding of services provided by Mecklenburg County. The majority of dollars that fund these services come from property tax and sales tax. So, for example, without a large projection of increased revenue from property or sales, increased funding of services like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system would most likely result in higher tax rates.
We worked with our neighbors, a sort of mock Board of County Commissioners. It was clear that the average person doesn’t know what their government is funding, or what the things being funded are responsible for. Yes, people should be responsible for educating themselves on these matters. But researching all this can be a full time job. It’s one reason we elect County Commissioners (who are considered part-time, by the way).
It was an interesting exercise in working with people you barely know who have different agendas. One guy at my table wanted to completely eliminate public schools. Well, that would certainly free up some capital, since about one-third of the current $1.38 billion budget is dedicated to CMS.
I was hoping to be able to add a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to education, which I thought would generate about $20 million in revenue next fiscal year (fiscal years are from July 1 – June 30). But @BudgetBadger wouldn’t allow any meddling with the sales tax. He said he may incorporate it in the future. And a measure like an additional sales tax wouldn’t be on the books until after a general vote, which in this case wouldn’t be until November 6.
Another good idea would be to make the exercise more explicit, where you give users a few examples with clear consequences. Sort of like this one for the Federal budget:
All in all, the exercise is a great idea. I’d like to see it online with the ability to show the aggregate and collected averages of people who submit budgets. But the actual face-to-face exercise of sitting with your fellow citizens shows the great responsibility County Commissioners deal with in having to be well versed in the efficacy of every line item, every service, every outside organization they choose (or choose not) to fund.
Below, I’ve embedded spreadsheet budgets produced by the five different groups of people who attended the event.