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 email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.