Getting Good Outcomes: How Staff Analysis and Policy Leadership Won Community Support for a Tax Increase
Stilwell, Jason, Public Management
Beginning with the economic downturn in 2008, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, began shedding services due to rising costs and lower revenue. In 2012, with successive years of reductions, its residents wanted to know what could be done to restore at least a portion of the service levels the city had historically maintained.
The recession resulted in service reductions, but these reductions weren't always apparent to residents. Why? Budget numbers, even as revenues began to bounce back, were at nearly the same level as they were prerecession. Residents, of course, wanted to know why service levels continued to suffer and infrastructure continued to deteriorate when revenues were rebounding.
One response was that subversive growth of pension and health care costs was resulting in lower service levels as funds were diverted from front-line service. Also, the cumulative effects of service-level reductions during the downturn were becoming apparent to residents. While annual cuts in service didn't necessarily seem like much, over time they were changing the community character.
Some 5 to 10 percent annual reductions were beginning to make impacts that were obvious to both visitors and long-time residents. Potholes accumulated and deferred maintenance continued to grow while reserve balances decreased. The city was forced to pursue financing that provided payment relief to the detriment of long-term stability.
When residents asked for answers, the council accepted the leadership challenge. It refocused its annual goals from tactical to strategic. While it kept a list of annual key projects, it also developed a list of four overarching objectives to maintain: community character, long-term vitality, organizational effectiveness, and fiscal stability.
The objectives drove staff to complete an analysis that the council could realistically consider, and it helped councilmembers develop a policy vision and articulate the vision that gained widespread community support. Carmel-by-the-Sea's example serves as a case study of the good outcomes that occur when the community relies on professional staff analysis, has a council that leads strategically, plus rallies around a focused, well-articulated vision of a better future.
A focused process that was also transparent and community-based allowed the city to build an understanding of a future, as well as the ability to determine if it was satisfied with the status quo or a specific alternate future. The city's ability to identify a need, articulate a vision, and develop broad community support involved three phases: analysis and reporting, council policy development, and community support and decision.
Analysis and Reporting
The pronouncement of long-term fiscal stability as one of the council's objectives led staff to complete a series of analyses that supplied a forecast into the city's fiscal future, outlined a comprehensive compilation of capital improvement needs, and proposed a balanced biannual budget. This was an analysis of needs and constraints that focused on service levels, which identified a feasible path forward and permitted expenditures to meet projected revenues.
The focus on service levels allowed the dialogue to center on outcomes rather than workload, staffing, and outputs. The forecast demonstrated that revenues were not going to bounce back to a level that would allow the return of prerecession levels of service. The budget, while balanced, remained status quo.
With successive reductions in service levels, some of the reductions were obvious the year they were imposed; the impacts of others materialized only after several years of cumulative reductions. Recognizing from the fiscal analysis that the future state of the city would require lower service levels, the council's next question then was, "What are the items we can no longer afford to do that the city had historically undertaken? …