In most cities, residents give input on their city’s budget at the end of the process, after the professionals have drafted and refined it.

But in Manhattan Beach, California, city officials this year asked for – and received – plenty of ideas just as the budget process is getting underway. Around 150 people showed up at March 5 meeting to convey where they want their tax dollars spent. The meeting was facilitated by Management Partners as a part of civic engagement project on budget priorities.

Police and fire services and infrastructure emerged as the top priorities for residents, with parks and recreation and facilities not far behind. Attendees were free to recommend funding increases for budget areas, but they were also asked to name the budget areas that should be cut in order to pay for their proposed increases.

The city also commissioned a survey that reached 400 residents, and it’s launching an online engagement tool in April to gather more feedback and ideas.

“What Manhattan Beach is doing is innovative and indicative of the City Council and staff’s commitment to give the community a voice about how their money is allocated,” says Cathy Standiford of Management Partners. “In fact, it’s a best practice.”

Attendees told organizers spending on police and fire is about right; they’d like to see more spent on parks and recreation, with funds diverted from environmental services or police and fire. Infrastructure spending is also too low; and many thought too much money goes to internal support services such as City governance, finance, human resources and information systems. Additional polling reinforced the residents’ budget priorities, which city officials will use as they draft the 2015-2016 budget.

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