Budget Game Forces Tough Decisions

Watch Budget Priority Setting Session

Gathered around a dozen tables at City Hall, more than 100 San Jose neighborhood and youth leaders spent a Saturday morning working together to fund programs and services they consider “must haves” in thebudget.

With $200,000 each and a lists of hypothetical items to cut or fund, the small groups had 90 minutes to collectively make decisions the City Council members will be making in the next five months.

Buy a Feature, created and guided by Innovation Games Company, was the latest version of Mayor Chuck Reed’s annual event to hear what community members believe is important to fund at a time when the city is facing an estimated $110 million budget shortfall.

“This is all about setting priorities,” Reed told the novice budget makers as they prepared to start their work at the January 29 event.

Luke Hohmann, founder and CEO of Innovation Games had rounded up volunteers to help conduct the session free of charge, when a normal fee would be $100,000. This is the first IGC had used the game in government. The results will be available in about two weeks, Hohmann said.

At Table J, guided by Innovation Games’ Brett McCallon, six neighborhood leaders and one youth commissioner from across San Jose carefully guarded the $200,000 in blue, pink and green bills they had been handed and studied the list of 18 items prepared by city staff. As a group, they had $1.4 million to spend on items that totaled $14 million. The choices would be tough and negotiating fierce. The only way to spend more was to cut some of the 11 items on another list. And everyone had to agree.

Table J participants study the spending items.

Seeking funding: Anti-graffiti employees, library and community center hours, traffic safety services, crossing guards, code enforcement officers, park restrooms and rangers, street paving, streetlights, Strong Neighborhoods and Safe Schools Initiative staffing, youth services in gang-impacted neighborhoods, children’s health initiative and contributions to community based organizations, Christmas in the Park and the Holiday Parade.

On the chopping block: Police field patrol officers and investigators, police helicopter unit, firefighters and one engine company and delaying the opening of the South San Jose Police Substation, four libraries and a community center to save staffing costs.

When questions came up, they called on experts for answers. Fire Chief William McDonald, Library Director Jane Light, Deputy Planning Director Laurel Prevetti and Police Sgt. Eddie Garcia came to the table with information.

Support came quickly for street maintenance. “If we don’t fund it now, it will cost more in the future,” said, Tom Paramo, a Neighborhoods Commissoner from Council District 8.

He also suggested not funding park rangers and park restrooms.

“If there isn’t an open restroom, they are going to go somewhere in the park,” argued Tina Morrill, a Library Commissioner from District 3 as she put in $50,000. “This is a serious health issue.”

Mayor Chuck Reed answers a budget question.

Keeping branch libraries open 4.5 days a week was important to Youth Commissioner Sabrina Robleh. “I go there all the time to study,” she said, adding that libraries are also meeting places for youth groups.

“The parking lots are jammed and there’s always someone on the computers,’’ said Mike Thompson of West San Jose’s District 1 about San Jose libraries. “They’re packed.”

Don’t forget about graffiti, urged Parama. “Graffiti is a blight that affects the psyche,” he said.

Elizabeth Contreras put $100,000 down on an item that would keep 12 community centers called “hubs” open 70 hours a week instead of 50. “They provide programs that parents would have to pay for,” she said. “I have a lot of grandkids.”

So many items, so little time. With only 30 minutes to go, nothing had been purchased or cut. It was time to find more money. Players turned to the 11items they could cut to free up money for their priority services and program.

Sabrina Robleh defends her point.

Emerging as possible funding cuts were eliminating the police helicopter program, which would cut five officers and save $1.2 million; Reducing the number of firefighters on trucks from five to four to cut 16 positions and save $5 million; and delaying the opening of four branch libraries.

“It’s tough,” remarked Teresa Faz, District 3 representative. “Putting libraries against fire trucks.”

Agreement was nearly unanimous on reducing the number of firefighters on trucks. But Jerry Mungai of District 10 wasn’t sure.

Thompson was. “It sends a message to the firefighters union that we the people recognize they don’t need five people on a truck,” he said.

Tom Paramo, Mike Thompson and Tina Morrill

The next round of unanimous votes came more quickly than the first. They voted to cut the firefighters and delay the opening of Calabazas and Educational Park libraries until. The savings: $6.7 million.

With more cash, the group refocused its attention on spending priorities. And with not much time remaining, the blue, pink and green bills were quickly flowing into Brett McCollans’s coffers. They now had enough to pay for nine items on the spending list.

The group voted to spend $7.4 million to maintain current staffing and funding levels for:

• Anti-graffiti — $600, 000
• Branch libraries – $2 million
• Children’s Health Initiative – $700,000
• Citywide Traffic Safety Services $400,000
• General Code Enforcement – 200,000
• Hub Community Centers — $1.7 million
• Park Restrooms – 400,000
• Street Paving — $1 million
• Streetlights – 400,000

During a feedback session after the exercise, participants generally praised the session and noted that none of the decisions were easy.

Said the mayor: “Welcome to the club.”