City Invites Melrose to Fiddle With Mock-Budget App During $28M Surplus.

It’s budget season again, and the City of Phoenix unveiled its new public feedback tool right here in Melrose a few weeks back.

On Feb. 28 about 25 people gathered for breakfast, coffee, and convo with District 4 Councilwoman Laura Pastor and various City Staff inside Joe’s Diner at Highland and 7th Avenues.

The informal meet-and-greet, which was organized by the Pierson Place Historic District (N.W. quadrant of Melrose), highlighted several municipal goings-on, but began with what must have been the first public presentation of the FundPHX online budget app.

(…Anyone who ever enjoyed Sim City might want to check it out…)

“It’s really a revolutionary tool,” said Jeff Barton, the City’s Budget and Research Director. “We’re the only city of our size that’s actually doing this.” 

The app allows the public to adjust City revenue and spending in key areas, and feeds that data back to Barton.

City officials can then use the data to justify the upcoming budget, along with in-person feedback from public budget hearings.  

The City hosts 19 public conversations in April, three of which are currently scheduled to be held in District 4, which includes Melrose. 

It’s an intricate process that runs from March to June, and which is explained in detail on the City’s website. The calendar can be seen directly here.

“I wanted more residents to participate in the budget,” explained Councilwoman Pastor. “Other people want to participate that can’t come to me.”

Just like the budget hearings, all data will be recorded and available to the Mayor and Council, and subject to public record disclosure.

Technically, Arizona law does not require the public to identify themselves when providing feedback to government, but FundPHX will ask for a name, and Barton said he will be able to see individual I.P. addresses.

“I’m going to share all this information with the Council,” he said emphatically. “They’re going to see district by district, how many of their residents actually played with the tools, and they’ll be able to get data that shows them what their residents’ priorities are.”

There are several hundred line items in the actual City of Phoenix Budget – the review process takes months – but FundPHX offers about 35 metrics the public can adjust.

These range from parks to police, though it’s important to note that Mayor and Council do not have authority to change some of the variables on their own.

Local tax rates, for example, cannot be changed without separate public processes, and Arizona law dictates how much cities must spend for police and fire based on population. 

Many other services administered by the City, like public housing, are supported through federal dollars with strict guidelines.

Still, FundPHX is another way for City leaders to read the winds of public opinion (or confirm their own forecasting).  

According to Barton, the City should enjoy a $28M dollar surplus in fiscal ’21.

City Manager Ed Zuercher’s “Trial Budget” is due for release Monday, which will be the basis for public discussions to follow.

Meanwhile, Barton said he’s going to keep hands off the FundPHX data.

“I was an auditor,” he said candidly at Joe’s. “I’m going to report it as it comes out.” 

Barton said the City will be able to see if the same I.P. address appears multiple times, but he will not adjust the results.

“I could go in and weed out (repetitive) I.P.’s,” he clarified. “But I don’t want to be accused of manipulating the data.”

Barton said one of the people who used the app when it was being tested provided seven different iterations of the police budget.

“At least I can report it as pure data,” he explained. 

Councilwoman Pastor, who also sits on the Phoenix Union High School Governing Board, said she wanted a tool that was easy for the public to use.

“I want residents, even students to understand that they can participate with the City budget,” she said. “I’m going to roll this out with some students (…) have them play around with the tool with our Student Advisory Group.”

Neither Director Barton nor Councilwoman Pastor mentioned how much the tool itself cost, though it’s expected to make for some new conversation during budget hearings.