CHAPEL HILL- As the Chapel Hill Town Council looks ahead to this year’s budget battles, members say they want to revamp the priority budgeting process.
When the Town Council introduced priority-based budgeting last January it was heralded as a new tool to help match the town’s spending with community values. But a year later, most council members say they weren’t impressed with the results. Speaking at a work session Monday night, Council member Jim Ward called the process frustrating.
“It’s been a huge commitment from the town staff to get us somewhere. I don’t see the progress,” said Ward. “I don’t see it impacting our decision-making process.”
Last year’s efforts to rank the town’s goals and programs led to dissatisfaction among some on the council, as high-profile programs like the public library appeared low on the priority list, due to confusion about terminology and the ranking procedure.
And though the Chapel Hill 2020 process helped define resident’s goals for the town, Council member George Cianciolo pointed out it offers little in the way of direction on how to pay for that vision or balance competing priorities.
“What is lacked was the discussion of consequences,” said Cianciolo. “It did say, ‘I want more affordable housing, I want more transit,’ but it didn’t weigh those balances, and I think that is the difficulty we’re faced with.”
Council members have been meeting with Margaret Henderson of the UNC School of Government to identify ways to improve the process. They say they want greater consistency and more transparency in the ranking process.
“I think the big failure of the process so far has been the real lack of understanding about how we got from one place to another,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “I don’t think any of us could clearly explain to anyone how that happened and we’ve got to fix that.”
Town Manager Roger Stancil said he and his staff have heard the Council’s frustrations loud and clear.
“It’s clear to us that the system we tried to create is not satisfying your interests,” said Stancil. “Part of it is simplifying and aligning the words we use so we’re not talking about things using different words. It’s got to be a process that you own and buy into or it is not worth the time.”
The Council will revisit the priority-based budgeting process at its planning retreat later this month.