Wellington Seeks Input On Budget Priorities

Wellington Seeks Input On Budget Priorities The Village Uses Online Tools And Public Workshops To Gather Feedback From Residents

The Village of Wellington puts a major focus on getting input from the public on their budget priorities. Outreach is ongoing this month as the village draws up its spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

By Jim Barnes, Wellington Village Manager

Wellington has always worked to engage its residents and businesses in its annual budget process. From budget surveys to traditional in-person workshops, we have continually worked to gather as much input into our budget development as possible. In 2023, we launched additional simulation tools, such as “Balancing Act,” in an effort to expand outreach. The simulation ties the village’s budget to its strategic priorities — the big-picture goals of the community. Connecting spending levels to these goals provides yet another layer of contextual information to budget engagement opportunities for residents.

“Our simulation is currently organized by strategic objectives,” said Christine Wadleigh, the village’s budget director. “The services our programs offer village-wide are all categorized into ‘service objectives.’ Using strategic objectives adds another layer to understanding how a department serves the community and the delicate reality of allocating funding.”

The village’s efforts to align its budget to its strategic objectives demonstrate how we strive to implement new ways of thinking about the budgeting process and use technological advances to build caring and resilient communities, continue transparency and reverse declining trust in government.

The goals of Wellington’s budget public engagement initiative are to build trust in government decisions; get information on public priorities; gain familiarity with budget allocation areas and aid understanding of budget tradeoffs; and align public expectations with what a government can realistically accomplish.

In order to enhance engagement in the budget process, the interactive tool Balancing Act features a simulation of the budget. In this tool, respondents interact with the proposed General Fund budget by revenue type and expenditure area, and the respondent may increase or decrease spending. Increases in spending indicate priorities, and any additions have to be offset elsewhere in the budget to balance. Open comment fields are included to gather freeform feedback to distribute to the Wellington Village Council and senior staff.

Historically, local governments have relied on a budget process that favors addressing short-term priorities over long-range planning. For more than two decades, Wellington has moved away from incremental processes into a more integrated approach. This is a result of the council’s responsible recognition of budget challenges on the horizon: the village’s revenue growth wasn’t keeping pace with its expenses. Decisions regarding projects, programs and services involve determining cost cuts or revenue increases, and we wanted residents to understand the reality of our budget challenge.

It was also apparent that the traditional method of community outreach around the budget wasn’t cutting it. The village was spending immense staff time engaging small crowds of repeat attendees. We needed better, more diverse feedback from more residents to make informed decisions.

Since then, our budget engagement has become an almost year-round activity, with different emphases at different points in the budget process. Early in the fiscal year, we launch a simulation with a preliminary budget and use the simulation tools to have our departmental staff prioritize their budget preparation process. This first cut is based on gauging broad priorities and determining how to resolve tough potential tradeoffs. Additional rounds accompany the proposed budget so the public and elected officials can both see the rationale for initial decisions and provide high-level input.

In addition to asking residents to weigh in on how to best balance the budget, we have also used the budget tool Taxpayer Receipt that shows residents how much of their total tax bill goes toward different areas of village operations like debt service or recreation.

These simulation tools help us create more constructive, informative conversations about the budget and engage citizens in a process that is often lacking in transparency.

The primary benefit we see as a village with Balancing Act is direct feedback from our residents. The simulations take a dense and dull subject and make it more engaging, understandable and exciting. We also can begin to explain the connections to revenues and expenditures and the relationships of a balanced budget. It also enables resident input to be captured independently, where residents can work on the simulation on their own, and allows for interaction in group settings, which we do with community groups. We are currently changing when we engage our residents with simulation. We are getting residents involved in the process sooner, and we hope to see a continued growth in engagement and participation.

Online public engagement evolved from a nice-to-have to need-to-have feature of government as resident schedules became busier, precluding them from participating in traditional community meetings. The interactive tools we use also give residents a quick and simple way to provide input on capital project prioritization, given that we also have more projects than available funding.

It is safe to say our residents are getting accustomed to simulation tools as part of the annual budgeting process. We continue to see increasing participation numbers. We will continue to look at ways to increase participation in our in-person and online opportunities. Our residents love to provide input, and our online engagement efforts are becoming an annual part of capturing their voices.

Wellington’s budget public engagement tools will launch this month and continue through mid-August. The simulation results will be presented in the budget adoption hearings in September.