Community Power Affecting Budget Decisions that Impact Our Neighborhoods
by Anna Daniels
It is highly unusual for a group of strangers to smile broadly at each other and enthusiastically confess that the workshop they had just attended on how to read the City’s Capital Improvement Budget had been really interesting and very worthwhile. That is exactly what happened a few weeks ago when I got into the elevator with a group of people with whom I had just attended the Community Budget Alliance’s hands on budget workshop held in City Heights.
It’s budget season! The total City Of San Diego budget is a whopping 2.7 billion dollars, with 1.1 billion dollars allocated to the General Fund, which is where the rubber meets the road in providing core services to residents- police and fire, libraries and recreation. Another 363 million dollars is allocated to the Capital Improvement Program.
This is the annual budget exercise to determine how well our need for safe, sustainable and livable neighborhoods will be met. Mayor Filner has made neighborhood services a top priority, which includes the revitalization of our neighborhood infrastructure. As residents, we should do much more than wait and see what happens– we should be informed and involved.
Capital Improvements are the public infrastructure investments that the City of San Diego makes on behalf of all citizens–think water and sewer mains; sidewalks, streetlights and roads; public facilities such as libraries, recreation centers, police and fire stations. These are public investments of city revenues and our tax dollars. They are essential for our public safety and our quality of life. For the most part, we take that investment for granted.
Those of us who serve as volunteers on community planning boards, advocate for libraries and work for neighborhood non-profits and business associations decided to attend that two hour budget workshop on Capital Improvements because we do not take those investments for granted, particularly if we live in low income districts south of Route 8.
In these communities, of which City Heights is one, the lack of sidewalks or poorly maintained sidewalks and a lack of street lights become serious public safety concerns for residents, particularly women, the elderly and children who depend upon public transportation or walk or bike to their destinations. Children who live in homes without computers depend upon their local library computers to complete schoolwork, but the reduction of library hours impacts this essential access.
Those of us who serve or work within our respective communities have been aware throughout Mayor Sander’s two terms of office that his policy and budget decisions, mostly in the form of cuts, have had a particularly grim impact upon our safety and quality of life. We would organize each budget cycle to advocate for infrastructure investments and maintenance in our own neighborhoods with little if any success.
The Community Budget Alliance exists to address the concern that city resources be allotted equitably to neglected neighborhoods, and that city residents have early, meaningful opportunities to participate in designing the budget. The Center for Policy Initiatives (CPI) initially convened the Community Budget Alliance and continues to provide expertise. This is now the second budget cycle that the Community Budget Alliance is reviewing. Those of us working in one particular community who have joined CBA now have the opportunity to meet with residents outside of our own community with very similar concerns.
The development of the Capital Improvement Budget is typically a technocratic and bureaucratic function in local government.*** That means that there is no clear process for community input outside of the annual budget hearings and it is unclear how projects are ranked and funded. The goals of the CBA are to make this process more understandable to citizens, open to broader participation and fair by recognizing structural inequities that have historically existed.
The way in which our city government approaches problem solving– the process–is very important. Our elected representatives make critical decisions about how financial resources will be divided up and applied across districts for specific projects. There are many competing interests, inadequate revenues to meet all needs and there are political assumptions and biases that also affect those decisions.
The Community Budget Alliance has provided critiques and presented solutions to enable better decision making by not only city government but by residents who are impacted by those decisions. There has clearly been a willingness on the part of our elected representatives to hear and consider CBA recommendations.
There will be an evening budget hearing again this year at which residents can address the full City Council as part of the budget deliberations. That meeting is May 22, 6-8 pm, City Hall 12th floor.
There is also an opportunity for citizens to attend a Community Budget Alliance budget teach-in and advocacy training session on Saturday, May 4. Participants will learn about what is in the budget and what they need to know to speak effectively about the need for good city services and improvements in their neighborhood. Remember- we only get 2 minutes to address the City Council, it can feel very scary the first time around, and it is a skill that can be learned!
Community Budget Alliance Budget Teach-In and Advocacy Training
Saturday, May 4 9:30 am-12:30pm
Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, 2nd floor Chollas View Room
404 Euclid Avenue, San Diego
RSVP 619-584-5744 ext 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org
I have always maintained that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. It’s show time! Your community needs your involvement.
***Author’s Note: Community Planning Groups, comprised of volunteer members, diligently provide input into the Capital Improvement Planning process. I left that very important point out in my discussion of the CIP budget process. These groups actively solicit community participation and are essential to representing community needs. Once their project lists are submitted, they are evaluated via a process that is not transparent to the public. I apologize for the omission.