CHAPEL HILL- Chapel Hill leaders took their first stab on Wednesday at setting goals to guide the new priority budgeting process, but the experience left some town council members scratching their heads.

Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer told the town council that after four years of slow growth, or no growth, Chapel Hill has run out of short term solutions to long term budget problems. The answer, he said, lies in tailoring spending to support programs, not departments.

“The concept is to manage for the long term based on shared community vision, to prioritize the services that we provide so we can make sure the funds, in a time of scarce funds, are going to our highest priority services,” said Pennoyer.

To kick start the priority budgeting process, council members were asked to rank 25 broad policy goals. The resulting list will guide decisions about where to concentrate funding and where some cuts might be made.

But some felt the goals were too vague and amorphous.

“I think we need to know what these things mean, because I don’t know the difference between, for instance, ‘manages and mitigates factors that impact environmental quality,’ versus ‘promotes and regulates a clean, orderly and ecologically balanced community,’ versus ‘controls and abates threats to the environment,’” said council member Jim Ward. “That seems to me, at least superficially, to be three different ways of saying the same thing.”

Despite confusion over the wording of the policy goals, a clear pattern emerged from theballot process. Managing town growth ranks at the top of the list of council concerns. Three of the four development goals were ranked as high priorities, specifically, long-range planning, infrastructure investment and economic development. . By contrast, only one of the four environmental protection goals made the cut.

Traffic management, transit, community policing and prudent fiscal planning also ranked as high priorities.

But council member Matt Czajkowski, a long-time proponent of priority budgeting, said he’s not confident this step moves the council any closer to making tough decisions.

“We are so lost in words. The purpose is to incorporate great big concepts, but they’re so vague at the end of the day, for a lot of them it is hard to distill what they really mean,” said Czajkowski. “And to me the hard part is going to be priority budgeting things like raises, healthcare, library, et cetera. Very tangible things.”

Council member Laurin Easthom noted that this is only the first time the council has taken this approach, and she said the process is likely to change along the way.

“It is, for the town of Chapel Hill, an experimental approach, so I don’t know how much weight you could give to our first undertaking,” said Easthom. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”

The council is set to discuss the specific goals as well as the overall process at a planning retreat scheduled for early February.