Burnsville may let residents designate some of their taxes to fund police and other services

Innovation in government may be the best working definition of an oxymoron. But a concept under consideration by the Burnsville City Council may force skeptics to reconsider.

The idea is to give local property taxpayers more direct control over the services their tax dollars fund in the city budget. Council members of the Twin Cities suburb have been kicking around the proposal for months, according to the Star Tribune.

Property owners in Burnsville could get the power to earmark some of their tax dollars to individual city services, including police, fire and parks.

If the City Council moves forward with the idea, Burnsville would be the first known city in the United States to implement this form of participatory budgeting, a city memo said…

“It really comes down to, whose money is it?” said City Council Member Cara Schulz, who proposed discussing the change. “I think the answer is, it’s the residents’ money.”

An analysis by city staff lays out the pros and cons of giving taxpayers the option of directing their money to specific city departments. Among the pros:

The concept of participatory budgeting is both bold and adaptable:
• This is a unique approach to budgeting, with no comparable example in the country.
• Allows property tax payors direct involvement and impact in the budget process.
• Property owners may feel they have more of a voice or impact on the budget.

But the city analysis also underscored numerous practical concerns raised by the proposal, including the likely need for more staff to implement the system. For example:

In regards to respect and stewardship, there are equity, legal and operational challenges:
• Effectively and efficiently managing a government budget by moving away from a
representative process to direct involvement for direct property tax payors.
• The practice may create ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, those who own property and therefore have direct involvement and those that do not.
• Resident of apartments and business owners who rent space wouldn’t have an opportunity to participate.

Still, the idea of providing citizens with more direct say over city spending sounds appealing to many. If the concept becomes reality, the amount taxpayers will be allowed to check off will likely be small at least initially.

City Council member Dan Kealey said he favors the idea. “It’s participatory democracy, which I like,” he said.

Though it would involve a small amount — he suggested $5 or $10 to start — it would still be meaningful for taxpayers. He said he doesn’t believe it will radically alter the city budget.

Other cities have contacted Burnsville to learn more about so-called participatory budgeting. Yet there’s a long way to go before the council decides whether to approve it or not.

Council member Dan Gustafson questions why it’s needed, since the council is already chosen by residents to make spending decisions.

“That’s what we’re elected to do,” he said.