The Manassas City Council approved a $328 million budget on Monday, May 13, in a move that will allow the Virginia community to rebuild an elementary school and improve sidewalks in the city's old town.
At first glance, it's not the kind of exciting news that gets the blood boiling. Budgets and other administrative minutiae usually are greeted with indifference, as if the process is almost automatic.
But that wasn't the case in Manassas.
Years of distrust and dysfunction had accumulated between the city government and the Manassas school system, causing the two sides to lead parallel but separate lives. This was especially true when it came time for each of them to make their budget requests to the city council. Neither side completely trusted that its counterpart was spending wisely.
So, in effect, the mayor and school board arranged a shotgun marriage last September. The city government and Manassas City Public Schools were told they would begin working together effective immediately on a joint capital improvement plan – a document that would identify a master list of infrastructure projects and guide future budgets for the next five years and beyond. Instead of competing for the same money, as was historically the case, they would work together. Furthermore, the effort would emphasize public participation and transparency.
City Manager John Budesky and Dr. Catherine Magouyrk, the school superintendent, were tasked with having a working draft ready within four months, for the start of the 2013 year. They were both relative newcomers, having been in their job only months.
“We didn't have any bruises or scars from the past. We just knew we had to do this,” Magouyrk said.
Work commenced immediately, although everyone was on edge at first. Nine or 10 staff members met weekly for several hours at a time; they discussed needs and priorities, financial forecasts and possible alternatives. They even toured each other's facilities to get a feel for each organization's staff and operations. There were at least 19 meetings in all. “We know the names and faces of the people who do the work now and that has improved trust,” Magouyrk said.
A tremendous amount of information was shared and traded, so much so that an internal Dropbox site was added to the city's website so that staff could upload and access meeting minutes, building plans, bids and financial data.
Within the plan, needs were ranked in a manner they never had been before. Police stations were compared against auditoriums, roads were weighed against ball yards. No detail was too small: A new layout and format for the pages of the capital improvement plan was designed, and the school system and the city even agreed to standardize their financial verbiage in order to improve the collaboration.
“It's fair to say the process really helped build trust between the staff and boards, and I think we have a new respect for one another,” Budesky said.
The public also was given a big say in a series of outreach meetings, which were publicized through traditional and social media, as well as through a phone system used for citizen notification. The effort was branded “Your Voice, Your Community, Our Future.” Technology, again, played a role in the public meetings, which drew hundreds of people. Residents were given electronic voting devices that allowed them to instantaneously share their opinion about whether or not a particular project was an immediate need or future priority. Public opinion was incorporated into the master list of projects. “They felt like they were more engaged because they got to see their work, and in real time,” Budesky said.
The prioritization process yielded some surprises. For instance, staff thought that residents were enthusiastic about the construction of a city branch library – the city shares a library system with the surrounding county – but that turned out to be a lower priority in the court of public opinion. Sacrifices also were made. For example, the school system decided to defer installation of part of a costly $7 million air conditioning system.
“We offered people opportunities to see what [the plan] looked like – see it, smell it, touch it, have a voice in it. While we still had people who were naysayers, there were many, many more people who showed up at City Council and said, 'Raise my taxes.'”
They got their wish. This week the Manassas City Council approved a 7 percent tax hike on residential homeowners – for the purpose of funding capital improvement projects. The tax increase was especially big for the school system, Magouyrk said, because unlike in some states, Virginia schools are not allowed to levy their own taxes. Funding requests must be made directly to the city council.
Although more revenue is coming, the city and schools have identified many areas where they can work together to save money. One finding, for example, was that fields at the community's sports complexes could be shared more efficiently. And that's only the beginning. The new-found collaboration has opened the door for future conversations about sharing computer systems and staff resources for procurement, human resources and other major functions, Budesky said.
Magouyrk said she has never been so involved with a city agency during her 32-year career. Budesky agreed, calling the last nine months the most cooperative period with a school system in his 18-year career.
“It really is the way of the future in governmental cooperation – not only for the cost savings benefit, but for the realized improvement that the process gains from bringing expertise from both bodies together,” Budesky said.
Image from Shutterstock.