Slaying the budget dragon at the Citizen’s Academy

The Police Department needs eight new officers and three drug investigators. The fire chief wants six new firefighters, and the public works department needs new trucks. And everyone needs new secretaries. There’s only $600,000 to work with, and that’s not the only problem: City Council doesn’t support a tax increase, a pro-law-enforcement group called Citizens on Patrol is breathing down the city’s neck, and time is running out before the budget—by law—must be balanced.

And the people crunching the numbers? Just your average citizens. Good thing this is just a scenario being played out at Asheville’s Citizen’s Academy.

“This is a very strenuous process,” Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant warns the three groups of academy attendees, each of which would wrestle with the fictional numbers. “It takes us about a month to do, and you guys have about an hour.”

The exercise in empathy—or possibly masochism—ends with the three groups presenting their results to a “City Council” made up of Durant and Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson.

When artist Jen Bowen recommends cutting money from staff pay increases, Durant rolls his eyes. “Uh, oh, here we go!” he exclaims as the rest of the room relaxes into chuckles. Then he notes that that kind of painful financial cut is sometimes necessary.

Elsewhere around the room, groups are justifying cutting X number of firefighters or police, and Durant is challenging them on each front. A couple of number wizards—possibly ringers with actual budgeting experience—suggest financing options to pay for capital expenses. The whole experience is an eye opener (especially for a city reporter who barely escaped the role of mock city manager by pleading journalistic objectivity).

This was the second get-together in the academy, in which citizens sit down with city staffers and, as Richardson put it, “peel a layer back and really see … city government.”

Look for updates on Citizen’s Academy every week through July 8.

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