Photo by KB35 on Flickr.

Like all governments and public authorities of late, DC faces a large budget hole, which it needs to fill through cuts to services and/or revenue increases. DC should create a “menu” of possible fixes that exceed the gap and let residents choose among them, like WMATA did for the FY2011 budget.

To address the last few gaps, the Mayor created a proposed budget, which precisely closed the gap through a combination of cuts to programs and added fees. Councilmembers then built a wish list of cuts or fees they wanted to remove, and they and the Council budget office identified other cuts or revenue increases that could offset those. However, this list remained secret.

A flurry of negotiation followed, and the Chairman’s office released, sometimes at the very last moment, a new proposal that added and subtracted various items, and which they already knew had the support of enough members to pass.

The weakness in this system is that residents had virtually no time to weigh in, and Councilmembers found themselves negotiating the budget without really knowing whether they would stir up resident outrage at particular proposals until very late in the process.

At the urging of advocates, WMATA took a slightly different tack for the last two gap closings, the FY2011 budget and the mid-year FY2010 budget (the one that generated that 10¢ surcharge for a few months at the start of this year). WMATA staff proposed a number of different possibilities which, all together, went far beyond what was necessary to close the gap. They outlined how to close it with a minimal fare increase but massive service cuts, or a larger increase and no service cuts.

Riders had the opportunity to choose. It was painful, and many people are frustrated by the fare increase, but ultimately the final consensus had much more public support than it would have had the WMATA Board simply raised fares or cut service without giving riders much voice. We don’t like the high fares, but we know we made that choice and that it was better than the alternatives.

The Council budget office has the chance to do the same, and incoming Council Chair Kwame Brown expressed a desire to include more public input into the budget decisions. The budget staff are already scouring the budgets of DC agencies for opportunities to make cuts, and studying possibilities for more revenue. They surely already have a plethora of ideas which go beyond the $175 million gap.

Instead of then prioritizing that list, taking the top items, and publishing that proposals, they can postpone the last step. Publish a larger list, equaling $300-350 million, and ask residents to weigh in on trade-offs. Most if not all of the ideas will be painful, but so is the reality of the budget. The least they should do is know residents’ priorities as they make those difficult choices.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.