Voters have spoken, but are they heard?

Rob Schwarting

The dust from the past elections has settled, and the newly elected are confronting those difficult problems that propelled them to office. The rhetoric from the campaign trail must now be converted to consistent and responsible action. Many bold statements were made on the stump, now we have to see if those ideologies and promises will hold up.

One statement I heard often was “we the people….are sick and tired….we want to be heard!”  I will give credit to New York Sen. Tom O’Mara and Congressman Tom Reed for hosting town meetings last month.  It is right and necessary for them to do that.  But is that enough?

My concerns are small, but I believe critical.  It is not simply about listening to constituents, but it is about when one listens and about what information the constituent has before the hearing is held.  It is probably the most critical at local and state levels of government, but it should not be lost on national government as well.

As an example, I cite a recent editorial by a local business man where he criticized the Yates County Legislature for not reducing the size of the county budget when he and many others objected to the rate of budget growth and property tax increase.  By law, the County must solicit public input on the budget; normally by holding a public hearing before considering adoption.  Typically, this hearing is held anywhere from a few hours to a few days before the budget adoption.  In my opinion, this is too late.  What the community hears is:  “we are listening, but only because we have to, and really there is little we can or intend to do.”  Under these circumstances, when I talk to many constituents, they complain that the elected officials (at all levels) aren’t listening, and they didn’t intend to change the budget.

A better time and way to get public review and input is at the very front end of the process.  It starts with discussion about our citizens’ wants and needs.  What do we want and what are we willing to pay?   We need to know factually how much different programs cost and how well they meet community needs.  It is a matter of knowing costs, benefits and performance before an electorate is informed enough to make an opinion on a budget… whether to consider or continue a program. 

Anything less discourages the average citizen taxpayer and invites narrow special interests howling over any attempt to curtail their pet program or entitlement.

This year, officials at all levels of government will be confronted with the need to cut back or cut out programs, and already special interest groups are starting to lobby against cuts as budgets are being developed.  In a short few months, the county and towns will be sitting down to start their budget making processes.  I believe now is the time to start opening the policy and financial books for public discussion.  If people can see the real costs and benefits,  then choices that legislators make might be clearer, more easily understood and less controversial.  

My only fear is that John and Jane Q. Public might have lost faith in the public input/review process.  If they stay silent and uninvolved, then policy discussions and financial commentary will be left to special interest:  the consultants, the critics and the lobbyists.  I believe that it is time for average men and women from the community to step forward and ask to be heard….not next fall….but now.

As to my second point, I applaud the School District Fiscal Officer for holding forums on the school budget process and other district officials in previous years or in other school districts that engage citizen groups in a several month long budget planning process.  While commendable, it generally falls short of an ideal community based budget process.  The typical programs are long on describing the process and garnering community buy-in to the final budget; but short on giving the citizenry performance measures, costs, and benefits of different programs.  In the end, the community finds it hard to decide if any academic program or staffing plan contributes effectively in improving student abilities as workers or students at colleges

Often the school or the local government is unprepared to develop and use good budget making data.  Too often managers measure input or output and not outcome.  Measuring outcome is difficult and most elected leaders and many managers don’t put in the effort to get meaningful measurement.  Furthermore, performance measurement means that program administrators can be held accountable.

Typically, the public is given statistics about the amount of dollars spent, or better yet, the number of clients served per dollar spent.  In the best case, we should be told the performance impact of the dollars spent.  We should know how many programs achieve a standard measure of success.  Did Johnny or Jane graduate and obtain a job or get into appropriate colleges; or how many public assistance clients actually got and held a job after completing a training program.  If public assistance rolls are not going down; if fewer youth are prepared for tier one universities; or if local employers are unable to hire graduates for routine jobs, then programs must be changed.

There is considerable data available on performance benchmark.  We have pretty good data on how much it costs to spread asphalt or whether a road needs chips, overlayment or total reconstruction.  We have pretty good cost data on getting students prepared for college, junior college or trade schools.  There is data that suggests which best practice will be more effective in different conditions.  Some high performing programs are probably operating here.  

Surely, a history of low wages in rural areas will lead to some programs looking very good.  Where we look bad, we have to change.  

But, without performance data, how does the average citizen know and make a meaningful comment, either objection or support, on the budgets we see at typical budget hearings?

I look to our newly elected and wise leadership to convert rhetoric to action.  

Community-based budgeting and performance-based budgeting are professionally recommended and accepted local government practices.  Give us data and a chance to be heard when our voices will make a difference.  Let us make this year a time of action, not a time, yet again, of empty rhetoric and lost opportunity.

Rob Schwarting resides on East Lake Road, Penn Yan.  He is the former Yates County Planner and community manager for The Radisson Community outside of Syracuse.  Most recently, he taught Urban Finance, Fundamentals of Public Administration, Quantitative Methods for Policy Analysis and Program Management and Community Economic Planning at Cornell University.  He served two years as the Chairman of the Yates County Republican Party and is active in several local civic and fraternal organizations.