Budget Processes That Encourage Inclusion of Expertise and the People’s Voice
I attended a meeting about the jail plan that included a panel of community experts in a variety of related fields and one county commissioner. A Ball State Professor, who is a nationally recognized expert in urban planning and specifically researching the types of things that lead to the decline of cities like Muncie, was one of these experts. He spoke about how one of the most concerning parts of the jail plan (beyond the accepted long-term debt, the lack of treatment facilities, and other issues) was the lack of focus on the economic impact of removing such a large employer from the downtown area.
If the 100+ employees in the justice center were relocated, soon to follow would be law offices and other related services. There would be little hope for the abandoned former jail to become anything but a vacant eyesore and 200-300 working people would be moved out of downtown. Hundreds of people who would no longer eat lunch in downtown restaurants. Hundreds of people who would no longer have a happy hour drink in downtown bars. Hundreds of people who wouldn’t pick up an item in downtown shops. This could decimate the entirety of downtown. He cited case studies, data, and research in presenting his extremely important and valuable point.
Why do I tell this story and what does it have to do with the point of this section? Because not one member of the county council was in attendance to hear this point. And when the panel was over, I asked the professor if any members of the county council or commissioners had reached out to him and he said that up to that point not one had. And yet, Republicans and Democrats alike on the county council passed a budget that financed this ill-thought out jail plan and put the county in debt for a generation. And the overwhelming majority of residents from a variety of community constituencies were against the plan!
As the legislative branch of the county, the council controls the purse strings. During the budgetary process, it is not enough to simply say, “this is good enough” or “this is fine” or “this is the way we have done it for years”. We must look at each line item. We must invest time and effort. We must go beyond simply what is presented to us in the hearing. We must be collaborative and creative and think how we can do the most possible to empower ALL of our constituents.
And we must engage experts and community voices. We have a major university as well as other institutions of higher learning, a hospital, and many many community organizations and businesses that provide an incredible range and depth of knowledge to draw from. We also have interested and concerned residents whose expertise may not come from a professional title or advanced degree, but who are experts in their community nonetheless and whose voices should be heard. After all, being elected to office doesn’t make me an expert in anything, but it should make me beholden to my constituents to seek out expertise from a variety of sources on each topic before me.