STILLWATER, Okla. (January 6, 2019) - While the fiscal year 2019 (FY19) began in July, the City of Stillwater is wasting no time in looking toward next year’s budget (FY20) and inviting the public to be a part of the process.
“We are constantly looking at the City’s budget,” Deputy City Manager/CFO Melissa Reames said. “It’s not like once City Council approves it, the budget becomes static. We are constantly asking: Is this the best use of tax dollars? If circumstances change, we go back to Council and ask for adjustments.“
A good example of this was in FY17 when the City proactively reduced spending in October 2016 to offset lower-than-expected sales tax revenue.
City Manager Norman McNickle said he was proud of how the staff has worked together with Council to create a leaner, more efficient and more transparent local government.
Balancing Act and Taxpayer Receipt
In the meantime, the FY20 budget process is gearing up for public input.
According to Reames, making sure residents understand how their dollars are used is important. In the 2017 Citizen Satisfaction Survey, 46 percent of Stillwater residents said they did not understand the budget.
“We felt that 46 percent was way too high and decided we needed to do more outreach and education about the city budget,” she said.
The City will roll out an interactive, online budget simulation this month called Balancing Act. Residents will realistically create a city budget with all of the real-world constraints and competing demands for resources city staff face.
While the City provides annual budgets and comprehensive financial reports, Balancing Act will allow citizens to see how many dollars go to each department. They will be able to reallocate the dollars where they see fit.
“I like to describe this as a sandbox where citizens can play with the budget,” Reames said.
The best part of the online simulation is that the software will capture the data.
“We'll be able to see how the public wants to spend their taxes and help Council make decisions,” she added.
There is also a Meeting Mode function available where city staff can bring the simulation to a civic group or community organization meeting.
“We’re looking forward to bringing Balancing Act out to our speaking engagements in early 2019,” Reames added.
Residents are encouraged to submit their budget recommendations through the Balancing Act simulation by March 30, 2019. Results (but not personal information) will be collected and reviewed by city management to present to City Council as part of the budget process.
The simulation also includes a companion piece called Taxpayer Receipt. Residents can use this online tool to see how much they personally spend to finance city services based on annual income and what percentage of their purchases are made locally.
“This is a great way for us to show you how you play a part in funding local government, and how important it is to keep our sales tax dollars in Stillwater to fund these core services we’ve come to expect every day,” Reames said.
Balancing Act and Taxpayer Receipt are available under the Financial Center on the City’s website at http://stillwater.org/budget.
Budget Process & Civic Engagement
The City of Stillwater, like all municipalities, is required by law to develop and publish annual operating and capital budgets. For Stillwater, the City’s budget process is closely tied to the Strategic Plan, which the City Council reviews and updates annually.
The budget cycle follows the life of a budget from creation to evaluation. The City of Stillwater's fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30.
The council may direct staff to make adjustments to the budget and/or the Strategic Plan to address citizens’ concerns or issues at any time during the year.
But for this to work, the public needs to be involved.
“We understand that it takes time to communicate with staff or city officials, but opportunities like Balancing Act will make it easier,” City Manager Norman McNickle said. “Our goal is to increase public participation and trust in local government.”
He believes that it is through two-way conversations when staff best learns what's important to residents.
“Your voice helps Council improve its strategic plan and helps staff know what you need the City to do,” he said.
Public input is gathered throughout the year through conversations, emails to Council, social media posts, participation in public meetings and other gatherings, nonscientific web surveys, scientifically controlled surveys and other types of responses to requests for input.
In January 2019, City Council will hold its annual visioning session to discuss the 2019-2023 Strategic Plan. This discussion will provide city staff direction as they prepare the FY20 budget.
The plan establishes broad community priorities coupled with specific performance objectives and outlined strategies that will help staff achieve those objectives.
McNickle said that the Strategic Plan is a road map that guides staff and keeps everyone on task.
“City Council’s visioning sessions result in real activities and changes in policy,” he explained. “A couple of years back, Council challenged staff to improve its customer service program. This resulted in the Standards of Excellence, a very successful staff-driven program aimed at improving how staff interact with the public.”
The six strategic priorities featured in the plan are as follows:
Effective Services and Accountable Government
Place and Mobility
Quality of Life
The Strategic Plan is available online in the Financial Center on the City’s website.
How to Provide Input
The City will announce opportunities for public input in the upcoming months on the City’s website under the News tab and on its social media platforms. Opportunities for input will include an online public input form in the website’s Financial Center, Pop Up City Hall and the Balancing Act platform.
If residents or organizations would like a city staff member to speak at a gathering, they can complete the online Request a Speaker form.