Thursday, May 26, 2005

Thanks, Sandy

Councilwoman Sandy Carmany has an illuminating post about the Greensboro 2005-6 budget on her blog. In with all her other observations, I was really glad to see this:

The proposal to double the amount available for neighborhood small grants pleased me. While many folks would like to see it increased even more, everyone should understand that this is NOT the only money being spent on neighborhoods. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent in neighborhoods throughout the city to install new playground equipment, upgrade parks and recreation centers, improve streets, construct new sidewalks, install 4-way stops and pedestrian crosswalks, etc. that do not fall under these grants.
I would like to see this amount increased even more, because I have a secret agenda for city government.

You see, I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that "nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be."

That's why I like neighborhood planning, which has happened in Lindley Park and Aycock. Neighborhoods generally have better information about what they need than higher-level organizations do, and so are in a better position to direct funds efficiently to address those needs. Ideally, I'd like to see neighborhoods have much more power in allocating the transportation and recreation funds that Sandy mentions.

But I'm not advocating the dismantling of city government, either. Neighborhoods get tremendous benefit from the expertise of city staff -- I know this from personal experience. But wouldn't it be great, for example, if someday GDOT came to each neighborhood and said, "OK, our 5-year budget for your area is $15 million. These are our federal and state mandates, these are the city ordinances we have to follow, these are the goals of the city's Comprehensive Plan. What are your neighborhood transportation priorities for the next 5 years, and how can we help you get there? Where do you need crosswalks? What's your worst intersection?" Etc. And if the neighborhood had already developed a neighborhood plan, all the better.

Probably none of this stuff seems very relevant (and therefore not very interesting) if you live in a new neighborhood where transportation, housing, and recreation are in good shape. But if you live in an older neighborhood, stressed by neglect, poor zoning, or poor transportation decisions from decades past, I think it's a very big deal.


Sandy Carmany said...

You raise an interesting concept (allocating X dollars to each neighborhood for them to determine how to spend it). This could lead to some lofty debates!

Let me give you an example how that concept is NOT WORKING on the state level with transportation funding, i.e., the equity formula. There are beautiful, 4-lane highways in certain sparsely populated areas of our state that may have one car on them every fifteen minutes or so while we choke on congestion here in Greensboro and don't have enough money to construct what we need. Does it make more sense to give everyone an equal share to do with as they please, or do we apply more resources where the need is greater? That is exactly the kind of decision we council members have to make all the time.

I would note that if your neighborhood has needs, you should communicate those needs to your council representative and have him/her advocate for those needs, especially during budget preparation.

David Wharton said...

I agree that the current formulas for allocating transportation funds in the state could be improved, and I think Greensboro does a pretty good job of allocating the transportation money that it does get.

I think the principle I invoked would call for improving the equity formula, not for leaving the funding decisions to lower-level organizations, since they wouldn't be any more competent to make the descisions -- probably less competent, actually.

That being said, at the local level, neighborhoods are often more in touch with their transportation / recreation needs and problems than are city staff. So I'd like to seem them playing a stronger role in decision-making in such cases.

Of course City Council is still going to have to have budget authority. But slicing out in advance a bigger chunk of the budget that would be (at least partly) controlled by neighborhoods gives them a better shot at getting their needs met than under the current system, wherein they are often competing for such funds with more influential and powerful players.

I'm not talking about huge expenditures here. For example, the council just allocated $725,000 for improvements at the center city park. I think that amount distributed around all the city's neighborhoods in the small projects fund would be about right.

And I'm not talking about new funds -- I'm just suggesting that we change the way spending decisions are made for money that's already being spent on recreation and transportation.