Budget Game Puts Neighborhood Leaders, Youth in the Priority-Setting Hot Seat

Photos by Dorian Silva

Gathered around a table at San Jose City Hall, eights acting budgetmakers generated $100 million in sales and parcel taxes and spent $124.1 million to restore services cut in past years. They voted to reopen community centers and libraries, pave streets, bolster public safety and boost anti-gang efforts. And they did it in about two hours.

The priority-setting exercise developed by Innovation Games was repeated at a dozen other tables in the City Hall Wing Room 120 as neighborhood leaders and youth commissioners debated, negotiated, cajoled and finally reached consensus on balancing the city’sbudget.

‘The decisions you had to make are the decisions the council is going to have to make,” Mayor Chuck Reed told the nearly 100 participants at the annual budget workshop for neighborhood leaders and Youth Commission members on Saturday, January 21. “You had a couple hours. We’re going to have a couple months. This is not just a hypothetical.”

It wasn’t exactly real either. Participants working with Innovation Games facilitators, used play money and made decisions based on information printed on their game sheets and the expertise of department heads who could be called over to answer quick questions about policies and spending.

Table G participants study their options.

“The real world is much more complex,” said Steve Landau, a West San Jose neighborhood leader.

This year’s Budget Game was similar to last year’s exercise, but less painful for many. , participants focused on making huge cuts to fill a $100 million projected shortfall. With an estimated $25 million deficit projected for thebudget and the mayor’s expectation of $100 million saved or generated in his fiscal reform plan, the acting budgetmakers were asked to restore services.

How realistic was the exercise’s goal?

“We may not get them in this fiscal year,” Reed said of restored services. “But in two years, we’ll get those savings.”

Fire Chief Willy McDonald answers a question.

Budget Game participants at Table G focused first on cost-savings or revenue-generating proposals to increase their pool of money. Before them were 11 proposals, some that would require negotiating with unions and others approval of voters. Innovation Game employees, who worked free of charge, served as guides, bookkeepers and bankers.

For example, a proposal to increase a business tax would add $10 million to the $11 million generated currently. It would require voter approval of more than 50 percent. Another proposal to close 80 park restrooms would save $500,000 but have consequences for park visitors. All proposals had to have unanimous approval from Budget Game participants.

Debate at Table G settled on two 10-year parcel taxes that would provide funding for San Jose’s crumbling streets. Measure A, a $100 parcel tax would generate $32 million a year, and Measure B, a $200 parcel tax, $64 million. The higher tax, however, would require two-thirds voter approval.

Gay Gail makes a point. at Table G.

“Do you feel your neighborhood would support a tax increase?” asked Matt Whalin, an Evergreen resident and Neighborhoods Commissioner.

“I have no idea,” answered Gay Gale of Spartan Keyes area,

The lower tax seemed easier to sell, but others believed the $200 was necessary to make progress on the poor condition of San JOse’s streets.

“We’re on downward spiral with streets,” said West San Jose’s Landau. “Go for B.”

Youth Commissioner Layla Foroughi and Teresa Guiterrez

The vote was 8-7, with Helen Chapman, Shasta Hanchett Neighborhood, not yet willing to support it. The group moved on to other revenue or cost-cutting items, and approved a business tax increase ($10 million), a disposal facility tax, ($5 million) and eliminated overtime for management employees ($1.2 million). After a short chat with Fire Chief Willy McDonald, they passed over a proposal to cut staffing on Fire Engine Companies from four firefighters to three.

Then it was time to spend money on any or all of 19 items listed on their spending sheet. In a bold move, Chapman put in $600,000 from her stash to open the Bascom Community Center.

After a short discussion, the group agreed to fund four measures that would increase hours at large community centers, add city-staffed programs to smaller centers, keep libraries open 5.5 days a week instead of 4 and add programming and staff hours at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Grand total — $6.7 million. Money started to fly across the table.

Facilitator Jorge Zavala and Helen Chapman

But there was a lot left to fund – bringing back park rangers and code enforcement officers, paying for traffic safety improvements and gang prevention. And there were more libraries to open, including Bascom and Seven Trees libraries. The group spent another $9.9 million on those items.

And yet, the big $64 million proposal to bring San Jose’s neighborhood streets from “fair” to “good” was still on the table. Measure B would fund it.

“I’ll go for B,” Chapman announced at 10:33 a.m., with about an hour left in the exercise.

Not ready to rest, Table G revisited the issue of a ¼-cent sales tax, which would increase the rate from 8.25 percent to 8.5 percent and bring in another $36 million. But they stipulated the new revenue would go toward public safety. They also put their remaining $1.2 million toward a $15 million measure that would add 80 police officers.

“We spent all our money,” said Teresa Gutierrez, a Table G participant. “That was good.”

Innovation Games will compile the game results for the city. The San Jose City Council will begin studying the budget in mid-February, and the mayor’s budget message will be released in March.

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