They target the most visible and appreciated buildings, programs and services as the first to be put on the chopping block. The outcry over the closure of a popular site, like the Washington Monument, or the loss of some vital program is usually enough to force the federal government to add to the deficit-rather than reduce spending.
Gov. Jerry Brown, with his decades in government, undoubtedly knows all about the Washington Monument strategy. So when he targeted redevelopment agencies in his budget proposal, he likely knew he would be seeking the elimination of funding for agencies that were especially vulnerable to the budget axe because they are relatively unknown and unappreciated by the public. He recently called redevelopment “a somewhat mysterious process to the average voter.”
His proposal has generated an outcry from California mayors and city leaders. But it’s not created a significant reaction from the general public. That’s not surprising given the redevelopment agencies’ failure to tell their story to the public.
In today’s environment, it is no longer enough to do good work. Municipalities and public agencies, like their private counterparts, must inform the public of their accomplishments, if they wish to have the support they need in tough budgetary times or to demonstrate their value under tough scrutiny.
The state’s approximately 400 redevelopment agencies have been around for 65 years and collect about $5 billion a year in property taxes. But they have not-as a group-documented their benefits to the public. They could only provide one objective study of their value when questioned recently by a prominent newspaper columnist. The study dated back to 1998 and was hardly favorable.
While there were reports of waste and sweetheart deals at some redevelopment agencies-and more may be expected with State Controller John Chiang’s decision to audit 18 of them – there are projects that have fulfilled their mandates, including the ones Jerry Brown brought to downtown Oakland as its mayor.
John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, has explained to news media that the agencies support more than 300,000 jobs and add $40 billion to the state’s economy, $2 billion of which is tax revenue to state and local governments.
Projects that have created jobs, revitalized downtowns, increased property values and improved the quality of life for local residents still have time to tell their story to the public and make their case for continued funding.
Not only would this provide valuable public information for budgetary decision making: It would be good for government.
Accounting to the public for how its money is spent, the benefits to the community, the jobs created and the economic value of a project add important layers of accountability and transparency to government.
Public reporting of agency actions requires major decisions about the use of public funds to be filtered through a public prism. It forces decision makers to weigh whether their choices can withstand the light of day-or the bright lights of the television news cameras.
This public accountability can give Californians confidence their money is being spent wisely and ultimately ensure the programs and projects that matter will be spared the budget axe. It could help rebuild voters’ confidence in government, as well.
Few projects or programs can attract the attention or visibility of the 556-foot-tall Washington Monument rising from the center of the Washington Mall in the nation’s capital. But all worthy projects and programs have the capacity to capture the public’s attention and its support if their stories are told candidly and convincingly.