This week starts the annual process of mayoral budget hearings with city agencies and departments. This, of course, is a form of Kabuki theater, with all actions and reactions conforming to a set form established long ago. Theoretically, these are forums to allow city leaders to communicate their needs and desires to the mayor, and for the mayor to communicate the his limitations in meeting those needs. Yet, it is a staged conversation, corresponding to a script handed down through the ages, for the “real” conversations have already been happening behind closed doors, and the coming hearings have little to no impact on outcomes. It is an attempt to appear transparent, to lead people to think that back room deals are no longer the stuff of government, but in fact the details of the budget are pretty well in hand, worked out by Rich, Greg, and Ronnie, who then inform the department heads what their budget will be. So what we will see next week will be departments arriving with 7.5 to 8% cuts, with an occasional department head jumping “off script” by saying that they will have to cut services, only to be told behind closed doors that they will not cut services (something that’s unpopular in the wake of the MCC project and bad in an election year) and that the mayor’s office will work it all out.
If you like Kabuki, then you will love this process.
But the problem in the entire exercise is that the mayor never hears from a group who should in the long run have the most say about what they want to see of city government. In fact, you and I are often mentioned as the reason why budgets have to be cut, but no one ever asks us if we’re happy with that, or for that matter, if we might be willing to spend a few extra dollars to ensure that these services remain. Mayor Dean, like the mayor’s before him, never schedule any venue for the public to make their desires known about the budget, including the values we place on government services, and our willingness to support them. The public, you and I, have little to no input in “guiding” the mayor to formulate a budget that reflects the desires of the governed. Theoretically, I suppose that this the responsibility of the elected representative councilpersons, however the way Metro Government is structured, the Metro Council has no input on the specifics of the budget other than making an up or down vote on the total thing. Yes, councilfolk have back room meetings with the mayor about their specific desires, which are used as weapons regarding supporting various pet projects, but their ability to share the values and desires of their constituents in an open fashion is very limited, and ultimately carries little weight. And, of course, very often those councilpersons have their own political agendas which may be at odds with the people they represent.
What we need is a chance for the public to tell the mayor what WE value in the budget. What we need is an opportunity to say “yes, I know the “T” word is seen as anathema in this state, but I personally am willing to dig deeper to ensure that school bus drivers get what they deserve, or so that our public hospital is able to take care of those without. ” There is no public forum for that conversation, so why don’t we take it to the mayor.
Here’s a thought — why don’t we all make a special effort this week to communicate OUR desires to the mayor about funding priorities, and our willingness to support them. This is a dangerous proposal, for I know that there are some libertarian types who believe the entire enterprise should be shut down and no services offered, but on the other hand I believe there are even more of us who recognize the power of good governance and the services that government can provide, and are willing to pay our part to ensure that these services continue. So, take a moment to drop a quick e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know your thoughts. Want to make a bigger impact? Bypass the “public” e-mail address and let Jim, Greg, Rich, and Ronnie know your feelings.
We don’t get a public hearing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be heard.