Neighborhood Budget Meeting

On Saturday, City Manager Debra Figone and Mayor Chuck Reed hosted 100 neighborhood residents at City Hall for a discussion and group exercise on how to balance the city’s budget and eliminate the $65 million dollar deficit.

The residents who attended represented a large geographic portion of the city. They were both young and old, male and female and represented a wide ethnic diversity. In addition, the residents came from a variety of occupations including private sector and public sector union members.

After welcoming remarks from the city manager and mayor, a facilitator took over and gave everyone an overview. Before the exercise was to begin, the facilitator asked the planning director, police chief, director of parks and director of transportation to give an overview of their departments and the services provided.  Questions from the audience followed.

The group exercise lasted for over a hour. Residents working in teams were given alternatives via colored cards representing different services, etc., that could be cut to help reduce the deficit. Anything from reducing the rate of growth in personnel costs, postponing the opening of new libraries and community centers, holding off hiring new police officers, and eliminating school crossing guards. There were also revenue enhancement options, like a one-quarter-cent sales tax that would require voter approval, increased cost of parking in city garages, restructured leases with non-profits on city property, increasing parking citation fees, etc.

The groups engaged each other in considering the pros and cons of each idea. One group made a pile that consisted of “absolutely no,” and an “absolutely yes” pile, and then a large “maybe” pile to help them get started. Some groups talked about what they liked about their neighborhood and city today before starting the process.

Some groups reached quick consensus while others had long discussions on the impact of choices. There were blank cards available where the residents were able to register their own cost-cutting ideas or revenue-generating ideas. The city manager and the specific department head would review the ideas and if doable would sign off on them. If not possible at all (such as a suggestion to raise gas taxes) then the idea would not be signed off.

If groups needed more information about a specific choice they would put up a red sheet and the department head would answer the question and in many cases the budget director was able to provide dollar figures for the new idea.

I observed from start to finish, roaming around and listening in on the dialogue. Credit goes to Mayor Reed for proposing this idea of neighborhood budget meeting, which is now in its third year. Residents that had participated in the last two years thought this one was the best. A resident from Evergreen said that interaction was great and the high level of choices made it engaging. I agree that the exercise was positive and believe as we continue to have residents sharing their views it will continue to be better each year.

Out of the 10 groups that participated, only one group did not balance the budget, with only $62 million in savings. However, they did not raise taxes. Several groups exceeded the goal and went as high as $75 million, which is likely to be the actual deficit come June. When they could not agree with a choice they would vote the idea up or down and move on. The groups worked well together as they understood the seriousness of the current recession.

After the group exercise there was a group discussion to share feedback on the exercise and what happened at each table. Here are some of the comments from the table captains in no specific order that were shared to the group at large:

• Make aggressive wage cuts.
• Everyone needs to sacrifice.
• Hire a full-time person just to do grant writing.
• Don’t cut crime prevention and gang intervention.
• Reduce benefits packages for city employees.
• Salary freeze for anyone making over 100K, like Obama’s staff.
• Have DOT parking staff give out tickets and have cars towed instead of police in neighborhoods.
• If you want to propose a new program or building, come up with the money to fund it ongoing or don’t propose it.
• Use furloughs to save money and not do lay-offs
• Outsource street landscape maintenance.
• Use contractors instead of employees.
• Don’t allow retirees to come back and work as consultants while they get paid their pension.
• Nightclubs should cover police costs.
• Focus more on economic development.

One resident said that it is easier for her to make these decisions as a resident since there is no political backlash. Another resident said the elephant in the room is the public employee unions and that we’re not fixing the real problem of our expenses being too high.

The residents’ feedback and new ideas from the neighborhood budget meeting will be discussed at a Feb. 13 city council study session.  In addition, a phone survey asking even more residents across the City about their budget priorities will be available in the next few weeks.


  1. President Obama was brought up several times in the discussion this Saturday.  The general feeling that we, as a people can accomplish things and move forward.

    Let’s all reflect on a passage from his inaugural address:

    And yet at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.  For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.  It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, THE SELFLESSNESS OF WORKERS WHO WOULD RATHER CUT THEIR HOURS THAN SEE A FRIEND LOSE THEIR JOB which sees us through our darkest hours.

  2. Very good and fairly accurate summary of the day. I would only take issue with the “wide ethnic diversity” comment. Our city is about 1/3 each Hispanic, Caucasian and Asian. The Asian population was sorely underrepresented. I don’t know if that would have changed the meeting at all, but we should focus on rectifying that.

    Thanks to you, the mayor and the other council representatives who took the time to attend. I felt that it was time well spent.

  3. The residents are crazy. Take time off without pay? Cut my salary? Do they know how hard we work?

    During a recession government should be hiring more people to work for the city not less. Also now is not the time to reduce salaries since that would limit our consumer spending. Unions are the foundation of this country and why we have the weekend, child labor laws and more.  Have Almaden Valley and Silver Creek residents mow their own lawns and see what it is like to sweat.

  4. I’ll restate my usual rant—wants vs. needs in tough times.

    We need police/firefighters, we need decent roads to get to work on so we can pay taxes to support our bloated government at all levels. We need the planning and building depts., and code enforcement.

    We want, we do not need, The Office of Cultural Affairs, for example.  I am positive there are all sorts of other city jobs that are nice to have (wants) but that we asolutley could get by without until we can once again afford them.

  5. #6: Hear hear!
    And, I hope that as the City decides on cuts, that the unions are open and agreable to solutions that will minimize any employee losing their job. Perhaps they can start by looking at the feasability of the automatic 5% annual step raises. Not to imply employees don’t deserve raises, many of them do(!), however the question is about the how-to of funding them.

    I pray that everyone cooperates and we get over these difficult times so that employees may continue to enjoy their careers and neighbors see an improvement in city services. If San Jose is going to continue to try to attract people to live, work, and play here there has to be reason to do so.


  6. #6-Pat,
    Yes, there are ways to use TRAINED volunteers to do SOME things, but as JMO has so aptly pointed out, there are departments with people earning well over 100K a year that could go, until the tough times pass. We don’t need highly paid event planners we need core services. Cutting 52 positions instead of reducing workdays are not a smart way to handle this. By cutting these jobs, you will indeed be cutting services to the community. A reduced workweek will save money and meet the need of cutting the budget, especially if, as JMO has pointed out, they cut the fat in unneeded departments.

    As to your comments about past spending, how do you think we got in this mess in the first place? If the way these Council Members and our former Mayor spent money isn’t addressed NOW, how do you think things will change? Mayor Reed is a fiscal conservative, but he isn’t the only one voting on spending…. They gave $800K to a minor league baseball team. Hum…. How many Police Officers, or Code Enforcement Officers would that get us?

  7. #5 Kathleen,

    When 2/3 of the city’s expenses are employee related, where else can you cut, especially when the ultimate deficit is liable to be 10% of revenues? Blaming today’s overspending on prior administrations is not an excuse for failing to address the issue today. It’s unfortunate, but some city employees will have to go (and the number has got to be more than 52).

    We, as citizens, need to step up and be part of the solution. For instance, what about using volunteers for school crossing guards (I was one in 6th grade) instead of paying $1.5M/year for crossing guards? The partnership at the Rose Garden is a good example of what’s possible when our government and volunteers work together.

    Our government cannot increase taxes and cut services forever. We’ll run out of people to tax and services to cut.

  8. Many years ago, I was asked to put together a zero-based budget for my department.  I must admit that it was pure hell, but times were tough and money was precious. 

    Were such a concept employed by the City today, I hazard that fully 50% of the employees would be let go.  Not to mention that the average life of a desk would be tripled for lack of the giant undulations created by size 12 wingtips.

  9. So Pier,
    Of the meetings like this held in the past, how many citizens’ suggestions did you, the Mayor, the Council, and City Manager’s Office actually implement? And secondly, how many of these are present suggestions you going to implement? It seems to me, if past suggestions were actually used, you wouldn’t need to keep having these meetings, and paying a private facilitator to run the meeting.

    I agree with you. People always want to reduce employees because they just don’t get it. When employees are reduced, citizens actually have the crust to complain about the lack of service they get.  It is a no win Bill because the system is too badly flawed. Our former Mayors and Councilpersons over spent for decades and we the taxpayer, and you, the hard working employee get to bare the brunt of their very irresponsible and bad financial choices.

  10. Some of the above comments scare me as a resident “unions are our foundation” and “hire more in a bad economy”.We should have been responsible in the good economy so we did not suffer so bad in these down economic times. Labor cost for the city are out of control pay, overtime, vacation, and benefits need to be rethought t o solve the long term problem or San Jose will be the next Vallejo!

  11. Rather than just muddling through the crisis, how about implementing some forward thinking reforms that will prevent future crisis from being as serious.

    Here’s one suggestion – All new departments, programs or offices created by the city have five-ten year probationary periods.

    There’s a certain inertia in government, so when a particular idea takes root and forces align for it to be acted upon, a program or department is created, which not only lingers but grows as all departments do over time as people seek growth by not only moving up, but by enlarging the organization beneath them and adding more support staff so that even without a promotion out of the department the can claim job growth while staying in the same classification.

    So by making all programs and departments probational for 5 and/or 10 years, you’d force a hard look at the original idea and if it doesn’t make sense the department and jobs in it are automatically eliminated.  Long term city employees or those with other “property rights” to city employment could shift to other departments bumping less senior employees (or they could go along with the department if the unions allow contract changes.)

    So I’d take all those programs that these budget forums identify as “wants” versus needs and cut deep, and those “wants” still left on board the budget after we balance would be put on the new probationary system so that in 5 years we could see if we still “want”ed them now that the economy has improved and they’ve grown back and beyond their 2009/2010 reduced levels.

    And in land use there’s a guiding document called a General Plan that provides guidance, focus and a unified vision for land use and development.  Maybe all the business of the city government would benefit from a general plan that spells out what the city government wants to do for current and future residents and sketches out in general detail how they will do it.

    Overall, kudos to city political and civil servant leadership for what sounds like a great community outreach effort around how to both manage crisis and get to know the priorities of ordinary residents….

    PS – In response to AJ, I’d offer a great quote I heard in a class a while ago – “Unions are the price we pay for really bad management in the past…”  You can probably add to that the implicit “…and the protection from future recurrences of bad/short-sighted management.”

    PPS – Let’s eliminate all city car allowances and automatically sign up former car allowance recipients with commuter checks for mass transit.

  12. Number Check, good grief, thousands of employees and the City ID’s 18 for layoffs?!?!  Just how serious are the politicians when it comes to solving a 60/+ million dollar budget deficit?

  13. Tina #9 said:“they can start by looking at the feasability of the automatic 5% annual step raises.”  There should be no such thing in public or private employment as a raise just because another year has passed.  All raises should be based upon merit and efficiency in the job.  This union-conceived and democratic party sustained concept must go. 

    Union contracts all have guaranteed raises each year, no matter how well you perform.  So, you get a bump just for showing up.  That must stop.  The cops got a percentage this year and a smaller percentage next year.  Other unions base their contract negotiations on what the cops get.  And by the way, police and firefighters alone constitute 44% of the SJ operating budget.

    The Dems want CEO’s and other high management folks in all companies that get bailout money to forego bonuses.  That’s backwards.  They should be compensated exclusively by bonuses based uopon demonstrable positive results.  Salaries should be low, like a buck/year; but those who bring their companies back from the brink should get hefty bonuses for jobs well done.  Those who just float along get no bonuses.  Those whose companies decline should get the axe.

%d bloggers like this: