Everyone grumbles about the incompetence of their elected officials -- and, as often as not, imagines that they could write a better budget in their sleep. In one Virginia county, officials are giving voters the chance to put their mouths where their money is. Literally.
One of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., Fairfax County, Va., has a yearly budget of over $6 billion, and disagreements over where to allocate that money -- not to mention whether or not to raise taxes -- can be intense. In previous years, the county has used county-wide public budget meetings, as well as smaller gatherings in each district, to gauge public opinion. Kiel Stone, Chief of Staff for District Supervisor John Cook, note that these meetings can be grueling: "They start at 3 p.m. and go until everyone has had their say. Sometimes, we wrap up at 9. Other times, the meetings go until the early hours."
This year, Supervisor Cook's office came up with another option for gathering information. On Wednesday, they released "Design Your County Budget," a PDF-based budgeting tool that allows individual taxpayers to decide where they want to put their money, and how much they want to spend. From school funding to public safety to parks, voters can determine the funding for nine major spending categories, cutting where they think there's fat and spending extra on areas that are suffering.
"It's designed to increase feedback, and give taxpayers a window into what we do," Stone explains, noting that the survey won't have any formal impact on the budgeting process. "We plan to collect the data, analyze it, report it to the board members, and submit it for the record." The collection process will extend at least until early April.
Fairfax isn't the only place where voters have been asked to design a budget: The Washington Post let readers offer their own plans for Washington D.C.'s spending, and The New York Times gave readers a shot at designing a workable federal budget. But this sort of budget outreach from an elected official is rare, as is the fact that Cook's budget tool allows voters to have an effect, however indirect, on the budgeting process.
Cook's tool was produced in-house, by "a staff person working in InDesign," as Stone puts it. But for all its simplicity, "Design Your County Budget" is a great demonstration of the competing, vital interests that go into funding a bustling, energetic municipality -- as well as the high costs associated with those interests. And, as Fairfax faces a potential tax increase to fund its impressive safety net, its budget tool may contain valuable lessons for voters across the country.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
9 Ways Sequestration Will Affect You
Virginia County Tells Residents: Balance Our Budget Yourselves
If you have a child in public school, watch out: $406 million is scheduled to get axed from the Head Start budget, which means that 70,000 kids will be kicked out of the program. Another $840 million is going to get pulled out of special education programs, and the White House estimates that another 10,000 teachers' jobs will be put at risk.
If you're planning to fly anywhere, be sure to pack an extra paperback: The TSA's airport security budget will be cut by $323 million, which means that your already-long check-in line will get even longer. And, while we're at it, it looks like there will be about 10 percent fewer air traffic controllers on the job, which is sure to slow things down even more.
Remember the floods and hurricanes that have devastated large swathes of the country over the past few years? Remember all the complaints we heard (and made) about FEMA's sluggish response to those disasters? Well, get ready for more of the same: Sequestration is going to cut $375 million from FEMA's disaster relief budget.
If you like meat -- or any food, really -- now might be a good time to stock up. The food inspectors who make sure your ground beef isn't ground horse and your chicken isn't a petri dish of harmful bacteria are about to be furloughed. Even non-carnivores are facing bad news: After a $206 million cut to its budget, the FDA will have to cut back on most of its food inspection programs.
Sequestration won't be bad news for everyone: If you're a criminal, it might be cause to celebrate. After all, with $355 million being cut from prison funding, convicts could be out on the street sooner than they expected. And, with $480 million being cut from the FBI's budget, if you've committed a crime recently, you might not need to worry as much about covering your tracks.
If you're a virus, things are looking up for you and your relatives, too. The National Institutes of Health are losing $1.6 billion and the Centers for Disease Control will say goodbye to $323 million. From research to public health programs, this will translate into a real downgrade to our nation's health care backbone.
Unfortunately, things won't be great if you want to take a vacation: With $110 million being cut from the National Park Service budget, many park services will be cut back or closed. In other words, if you're one of the 250,000 people who were planning to visit the Grand Canyon this year, you should prepare for a delayed opening and reduced options.
While not all federal student aid programs will take a hit in 2013, sequestration is on track to make things tough for low-income college students. The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, which can give a needy student up to $4,000 a year, will likely be cut by 8.2 percent, as will federal work study programs. And for students who want to borrow money, student loan origination fees will also go up.
Here's a silver lining to sequestration: It will be educational. For years, this nation has been in the midst of an argument about what role the federal government has and should have in our daily lives. For anyone who has wondered what the government really does for them, the next few months will be an outstanding lesson in where, exactly, your tax money goes.