San Jose Lets Residents Try Their Hand at Balancing the City Budget

A screen shot from a website set up by San Jose using the Balancing Act program to allow residents to try and balance the city's budget. There is also a mechanism for residents to provide input to the city on how they want city funds spent. (Balancing Act)

Think it's hard putting together your personal budget? Try doing it for the largest city in the Bay Area.

San Jose has put together a new website where residents can try to balance the city's budget for the upcoming year using a program called Balancing Act.

On the website, residents can see the city's revenue streams (such as property and sales taxes) alongside what the city spends on things like public safety, parks and housing. They then have to try to decide what spending they would eliminate to balance the budget.

Residents using the Balancing Act website must decide what spending to cut in order to balance the budget.
Residents using the Balancing Act website must decide what spending to cut in order to balance the budget. (Balancing Act)

Mayor Sam Liccardo said one of the issues the city faces when it comes to balancing the budget is that more residents live in the city than work there, reducing the taxes the city can bring in.

"We’re challenged here in San Jose because as a city with the worst jobs-to-housing balance of any major city in the country, we know we need more jobs in order to provide services," Liccardo said at a community event on Saturday. "On the other hand, there a lot of folks who are pretty fed up with growth, and we understand why they are."

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Liccardo will lay out his priorities for the city's 2018-19 city budget in mid-March, but before then he's using this website to see where residents would like the city to focus its spending. Around 40 San Jose residents listened to Liccardo as he walked them through last year's budget, explained the breakdown of city funds, and discussed some of the budget constraints at the Mayfair Community Center over the weekend.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo directs residents to a new website where they can tell the city how they would build a city budget.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo directs residents to a new website where they can tell the city how they would build a city budget. (Alyssa Jeong Perry/KQED)

After his presentation, residents were on their own to craft their San Jose budget.

"I'm concerned about police funding. I know San Jose has had trouble with the police funding," said South San Jose's Kevin Kelleher. So he chose to give more money to police by cutting money for transportation, but he still ended up with a deficit of $3 million.

Liccardo says allowing residents to try to balance the budget themselves helps them understand the intricacies of running a city with restricted funding.

"We're required to make trade-offs, as we do in life in our own personal budgets," he said. "It's important for us to really get a clear picture of priorities within that constrained budget rather than a wish list."

When they're done crafting their own San Jose budget online, residents can submit their proposals, giving Liccardo and his staff a picture of what the public would like to see done with city funds.

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"It's helpful to enable us to understand whether what we think the community wants is really what the community wants," Liccardo said.

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