The City of San Antonio is inviting citizens to take a deeper dive into the annual budgeting process via the SASpeakUp Survey, which can be taken in English or Spanish and allows participants to try out an interactive budget balancing simulator. The simulator is a reminder that in Texas the state and municipal budgets must be balanced by law, unlike the federal budget, where deficit spending is allowed.
The SASpeakUp Survey is the equivalent of a virtual public hearing for the City, and reflects a desire on the part of staff to use technology to elevate the levels of civic engagement in the community. Few people have the time or inclination to attend traditional public hearings, which often come too late in the decision-making process to have a real impact. Inviting the public to get involved in a timely fashion via their smart phones holds the potential for inspiring far greater civic participation.
Rivard Report readers can prove that point by taking the survey, which took me less than three minutes to complete, including my written comment and suggestion at the end. The survey, which was created last year, will lead to other interactive opportunities for citizens if people participate.
City staff is just starting to shape the 2017 fiscal year budget, which will run from Oct. 1, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2017. The survey results will be presented to City Council at an all-day work session on June 8, and the first full draft of the budget will be delivered to City Council on August 18. A final vote approving the budget will come on September 15. The information gathered in the survey will come early enough in the process to be given serious consideration by City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her senior staff of deputies and directors. That makes it an exercise worth your time and trouble.
UTSA’s College of Public Policy has been retained w to conduct a more in-depth, 10-district survey of citizens that adds scientific weight to the community-wide survey invitation.
The City is trying to make public meetings on the budget process more attractive by taking them outside of government buildings, and staging them at popular meeting places in the urban core as well as one near the UTSA Main Campus. Citizens will be invited to share their views on City spending priorities at venues ranging from the Pearl Farmer’s Market to Frank Restaurant in Southtown to the Conjunto Festival in Rosedale Park on the Westside. Seven meetings in different venues are scheduled for this month (see chart).
|DATE||TIME||EVENT NAME||EVENT LOCATION|
|May 6, 2016||6-9 p.m.||First Friday||Frank Restaurant, 1150 S. Alamo Street|
|May 7, 2016||9 a.m.-Noon||Pearl Farmer’s Market||The Pearl Brewery, 303 Pearl Parkway|
|May 12, 2016||5:30-7:30 p.m.||Westside Story||Mission Marquee, 3100 Roosevelt Ave|
|May 13, 2016||11 a.m.-2 p.m.||District 4 / Port San Antonio Heroes 5K – packet pickup||Port San Antonio, Main Entrance|
|May 14, 2016||Noon-3 p.m.||Conjunto Festival||Rosedale Park, 340 Dartmouth Street|
|May 19, 2016||5-7 p.m.||LOOP Mega Mixer||San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W Jones Ave|
|May 22, 2016||1-3 p.m.||The Block Food Truck Park – Sunday Brunch||The Block, 14530 Roadrunner Way|
“The City budget reflects the community’s priorities, so we need residents to speak up to tell us what is important to them,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley stated in a press release announcing the SASpeakUp Survey. “Last year, residents told us they wanted more money for streets and sidewalks, and we listened by recommending $45 million more in the 2016 budget.” Citizen feedback last year led City Council to increase spending on street repairs by $23 million, according to City staff, with 832 projects planned for the year. By late April, 392 have been completed, according to the release.
The City’s FY2016 budget totaled $2.5 billion, but the General Fund portion of that budget is $1.2 billion. The balance consists of dedicated funds and capital spending.
Public engagement almost certainly would improve if local government makes it easer to be heard. People working full-time jobs and raising families have little time or energy to attend public meetings that can go on for hours, but ask the public to send a text message or email supporting or opposing rideshare regulation or seeking using public funds for sports venues and you are likely to receive a blizzard of responses. Does anyone doubt that voter registration and turnout would improve dramatically if citizens could register and cast votes from their phones? We conduct every other sort of business online. Why not civic engagement?
“We want to do this a lot more frequently and engage the public on various city issues and hot topics,” said Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of government and public affairs. “We’ve created a hashtag #SASpeakUp and we will count all comments we get via social media, too.”
One question is why City officials are inviting input on the annual budgeting process, but have not do so with a survey measuring community priorities for the 2017 bond, which will determine the City’s next five-year cycle of capital project spending.
Will our collective responses make a difference? It depends. The survey is simple by design and does not seek detailed responses from survey-takers. There is a place at the end to add a comment or suggestion, which is the only opportunity to get more specific than ranking broad categories of spending. The survey, for example, will not measure the level of discontent, for example, with the state of sidewalks (or the lack of sidewalks on many streets) that might lead staff to recommend that City Council add funding to sidewalk construction and maintenance — unless the individual survey taker includes that in a closing comment.
Taking the survey also sends a signal to City hall that citizens want officials to accelerate efforts to offer more online services to citizens, and to make more of its data more digitally accessible. To be blunt, San Antonio lags. One recent personal experience typifies what an average citizen might encounter while interacting with City government.
My wife, Monika Maeckle, and I and her 84-year-old mother, Hilde Maeckle, live in adjoining houses on East Arsenal Street across from H-E-B headquarters. Residents are required to purchase and display annual resident permits to park vehicles on the street.
A notice arrived in the mail last month reminding us of the May 1 expiration date for existing permits. Residents were required to visit Downtown Operations offices at 400 N. St. Mary’s St, which are inside a City-owned parking garage. The letter also noted that only cash or checks would be accepted. No credit cards. Proof of residency, such as a paid utility bill, also was required. All this for a piece of plastic to hang from a vehicle mirror.
Who carries a checkbook anymore? How about payment via a cash app or at least a PayPal or Square transaction? Why not pay online and get the permit in the mail?
I made my way to the parking garage on my bike, a short ride from the Rivard Report offices in the Rand Building. The receptionist was friendly and efficient, but … I forgot to bring proof of my mother-in-law’s residency. I reasoned with the receptionist that I was there with sufficient proof of my own residency. Why would I game the City out of a few extra permits? I tried without success to call a contact in Downtown Operations to inject common sense into the transaction.
“Perhaps your supervisor will recognize my name and vouch for me and let me pay for my mother-in-law’s permits,” I suggested.
“I’ll ask,” the receptionist cheerfully offered.
Five minutes later, she returned.
“I’m sorry, he doesn’t recognize your name, either.”
Alas, brought to ground. I humbly returned the following week with Hilde Maeckle’s CPS Energy bill, on the verge of success. Then I was reminded by the receptionist that my credit card was not acceptable. I hopped back on my bike and pedaled to a nearby Jefferson Bank ATM, then back to Downtown Operations to close the deal. My total came to $30 and the ATM only gave out $20 bills, and the receptionist could not change a $20 bill. Another brief wait while she found change elsewhere and we finally had our parking permits. I handed out a few Rivard Report Fiesta medals.
I don’t want to go through this every year, and I’d like to make life a bit easier for our neighbors, too. So, please, take the survey and send City Hall a signal: Doing business online is the way to go.
Top image: SASpeakUp logo design by the City of San Antonio.