Budget Games Focuses on Spending Money From Possible Sales Tax Revenue

Register to Play Budget Games Online on Thursday, Friday and Saturday
What do you do when the City of San Jose asks you to spend money you don’t have and may not have in the future? If you’re sitting at Table 4 in the City Hall Rotunda, you spend it quickly but wisely.

Budget Games.

Depending on what table you were sitting at the mayor’s annual budget priority-setting exercise on Saturday, January 18, you were limited to spending $68 million, the amount that would be generated from a ½ -cent sales tax or $34 million from a ¼-cent tax.

In other years, residents were asked to balance the entire operating budget with revenue options and cost-cutting measures. This Budget Games version was focused on setting priorities from a list of services and employee costs using estimated revenue from sales taxes, which could be headed to a public vote this year.

“We’re playing with things we don’t have yet,” said Kymberli Brady, a Downtown San Jose resident, describing the frustration among her team members. She added “This doesn’t necessarily mean we support the tax increase.”

Others wanted more input into the list of spending choices given to players.

“There are priorities in our community that were not reflected on our list of choices,” said Harvey Darnell, North Willow Glen resident. “There needs to be a sub process before this, where community leaders bring together our priorities.”

But Tara Pichumani, a Youth Commission member from San Jose, said she learned a lot about roads and the cost of maintaining them, something she hadn’t thought about because he doesn’t drive. Of Budget Games, she said, “It’s a great opportunity that we all come together.”

This year’s players were also supposed to engage in budget spending Online, with tablets supplied by Microsoft.  But as participants logged on to play a couple of initial games, the load was too much for the city’s WIFI. The tablets were collected and players played on with paper and pretend paper money.

David Dearborn makes his point at Table 4.

Brought to the City for the fourth year at no charge by Conteneo, formerly known as Innovation Games, the exercise is one of several tools the city uses to gauge residents’ views on how and what the city should spend money on before the budget season kicks into high gear. The city also pays for a random telephone survey and conducts community budget meetings in each council district to hear from residents.

San Jose residents who were not at the January 18 event will have the chance to play an hour-long game free online at home, at a community center or library or wherever they have access to a computer.  The game will be moderated by facilitators from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on January 23, 24 and 25. The results will also be tallied and the information passed on to the mayor and city council.

Last year, the message to the San Jose City Council was to recommit money to public safety in restoring more police officers to the city’s force. That was still a priority among many of the 110 Budget Games players gathered at City Hall on January 18, but attention was also focused on the city’s crumbling streets and community centers and libraries that have limited hours because of staff cuts.

Here is how the Budget Game unfolded at Table 4, which was represented by players Juan Estrada, Bob Dolci and Joanna Lui, from East San Jose; Katherine Decker from South San Jose; and David Dearborn and Dev Davis from North Willow Glen.  Tanya Freudenberger, an Alum Rock resident, and Susan Perry from Lake County were observers. Brett Frasier, a Conteneo volunteer who works at Adobe, was the table facilitator.

The $68 million was divided equally among the six players who also had two pages full of spending choices with the cost of fully funding that service or employee salary bump for thefiscal year.   If you put in money for one spending choice, you had to convince your fellow players to also contribute to get the item fully funded.

“You have complete control over how you want to spend your money,” Luke Hohmann, Conteneo CEO, instructed the players as the game was about to begin.

The resident budget-makers also got an expression of appreciation from City Manager Ed Shikada who said, “You’re helping us take the next step in our journey.”

Bob Dolci was first off the block, handing over $3 million to fund Homeless Response and Rapid Housing with a price tag of $3.5 million.  The proposal would pay for services aimed at getting homeless men, women and individuals out of encampments and into housing. Katherine Decker completed funding for the proposal with a donation of $500,000.

Joanna Lui and Juan Estrada quickly funded the Satellite and Neighborhood Community Centers at a cost of $920,000, which would help restore hours from 20 to 45 a week at youth centers to activities for at-risk youth.

Gang and Crime Prevention proposals were also quickly funded by Dev Davis and Decker at the combined cost of $1.9 million. Also funded was $2 million for 20 Community Police Officers, non-sworn police aides who can perform such duties as interviewing witnesses, photographing crime scenes and collecting evidence.

“Can we talk about some big things?” asked Davis.  “Police? Employee compensation? Roads?”

Three proposals, for example, would increase the number of police officers, by 33, 65 or 98 at a cost of $8.5 million, $17 million or $25.5 million

It took a while longer for a consensus on the big ticket items.  Estrada wanted to also look at keeping libraries open longer and Dearborn lobbied for trying to keep San Jose streets from further deteriorating. “Roads are getting worse and every time we put it off it gets more expensive,” he said.

Then it was Dev drawing the group back to an $11 million proposal to increase employee wages by 2 percent, a move to restore the 10 percent cut in wages the city made to cut balance the budget.

“We have a huge brain drain coming on,” she said. “We’re having trouble hiring. It’s not like they’re making a ton of money. ”

Offered Estrada, “Does anyone want to create jobs?” He was referring to a proposal that would add $2 million to expand economic development efforts.

Time was running out and so was the players’ cache of money.   It was time to finish the game.  Leftover funds were put into a Contingency Reserve for unexpected expenses.

In the end, the choices reflected priorities that players had voiced at the beginning of the exercise. They spent:

  • $920,000 for increasing hours at satellite and neighborhood community centers
  • $1.2 million to add 10 park rangers.
  • $4.6 million to increase branch library hours to six days, or 51 hours a week.
  • $8.5 million to restore 33 police officers.
  • $1.5 million for gang prevention.
  • $437,000 for three crime prevention specialists.
  • $20 million for street repairs.
  • $2.6 million for fully staffing fire engine companies.
  • $1 million to add 10 code enforcement officers.
  • $3.5 million to help homeless get into housing.
  • $11 million to boost employee salaries by 2 percent.
  • $575,000 to add classes and programs at the King Library.
  • $575,000 for long-range planning.
  • $9.3 million for Contingency Reserve.