Celebrating its 125th
anniversary this year, Hapeville is a small community (pop. 6,650) outside of Atlanta and the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The city suffered economically due to the closing of the Ford Plant in 2006 and the Great Recession, but new businesses are now coming back and fueling new growth. Like any other city, Hapeville’s budget affects every citizen, but the public is not consistently engaged in the budget process. The Citizen Chalkboard set out to change that.
How does the program work?
Because citizens want to know where their money is going, the workshop was initiated in 2015 to be more proactive and transparent about the city’s finances. The program is also an educational tool: it can clear up misconceptions about the budget process, including the need to establish financial priorities and make tough choices with limited resources.
Tod Nichols, Recreation Director in Hapeville, presents during a budget workshop.
Hapeville hired a student intern to help implement the Citizen Chalkboard meeting format and schedule meetings parallel to the regular annual budget process. In preparation for the budgeting portion of the workshop, the city manager presented key parts of the budget, beginning with a five-year financial history, ideas for increasing operating revenue and decreasing expenditures, a review of the budget calendar and process as well as relevant capital projects for every operations area. Hapeville also projected numbers for 2017 with a uniform two percent reduction or increase for basic trends. This analysis was used not just for the actual budget process, but also to forecast dollar amounts for the “budget game” that participants in the workshop played.
Equipped with this new knowledge and $2.6 million “Hapeville dollars”, about 25-30 members of the community (an improvement over real-life budget meetings) formed small groups and discussed potential projects for funding consideration. Technical subject matter experts were available for questions from citizens, and city staff reached out a few days later if answers to their inquiries could not be provided immediately. A week after the workshop, a master document in a Q&A format was posted on the City of Hapeville website. In addition, participants received individual emails from group facilitators to answer questions and provide a summary of the process.
What are the costs and benefits?
The major costs of the program are additional staff time and coordination, which Hapeville was able to absorb by hiring a graduate student intern for four months. The benefits are twofold: First, residents are more informed as they acquire new information about fiscal conditions and the budget process in general as well as specific budget items in particular. Second, Hapeville observed significantly increased citizen and staff engagement, which came from the workshop meetings, open dialogue, and follow-up reports to the citizens and Council. The feedback actually helped adjust some departmental recommendations and requests for equipment. The program has now been authorized for a second year, and Hapeville is considering adding some social media elements for anyone who may not feel comfortable attending a workshop meeting.
For more information, please contact William R. Whitson
, City Manager, City of Hapeville.