Column: Bloomington city council’s 2024 “budget advance” meeting is a retreat from the public

On Tuesday (April 25), Bloomington’s city council will hold its traditional “budget advance” meeting—which is by custom a chance for councilmembers to say something about their priorities for the 2024 budget.

The Bloomington city council’s “budget advance” meeting agenda could be amended to include time for questions and comment from the public. But wouldn’t it be great to live in a place where the city council adopted a “public first” approach to everything, so that this kind of amendment wasn’t needed—it would already be a part of the agenda.

There are at least four ways to tell that it’s not a regular meeting of the city council.

First, the meeting agenda  for Tuesday’s budget advance does not include any time for public questions or comment. Under local law, the city council’s agenda for a regular meeting is supposed to include time for public comment.

Another sign that Tuesday’s budget advance is not a regular city council meeting is the choice of a Tuesday, instead of a Wednesday, for its scheduling. Regular meetings of the council are scheduled for Wednesdays.

Also different from a regular meeting is the start time for the budget advance meeting—6 p.m. instead of the regular 6:30 p.m.

And finally, the meeting location for Tuesday’s budget advance meeting is different from city council chambers. The budget advance will be held in the McCloskey Room, which is a smallish conference room with limited seating capacity.

The city council’s vote to adopt the annual budget is the most important action the city council takes each year.

Why would the council arrange its first engagement with the administration about the 2024 budget in a way that seems designed to escape the watching public’s scrutiny?

The choice of the relatively cramped McCloskey Room is driven by the fact that the board of public works normally uses the city council chambers for its regular Tuesday meetings at 5:30 p.m.

It’s at least a little surprising that when there’s a scheduling conflict over the space that bears the city council’s name—city council chambers—the nine-member city council yields to the three-member board of public works.

But Tuesday’s space conflict could have been avoided, by choosing the council’s regular meeting day for its budget advance—there is no regular Wednesday city council meeting scheduled for this week.

To sum up, the city council could have chosen to hold its budget advance meeting in the same place, on the same day and time, when the watching public expects the council to hold its meetings. But the council chose not to do that.

I hope that on Tuesday, when the council reaches the item on its agenda that says “Agenda Review” someone might at least move to amend the agenda to add some time to open up the public mic.

And I hope that there might be some discussion about how the council plans in the coming months to tap the public’s expertise, skills and interest in the city’s 2024 budget.

For Hoosier cities like Bloomington, it’s the mayor who proposes the annual budget, which is subject to approval by the city council.

But I’d like to live in a place where city councilmembers don’t just talk about their priorities at a budget advance, then sit back and hope the administration incorporates their priorities into the budget.

I’d like to live in a place where city councilmembers use the budget advance meeting to lay the groundwork to start work on the council’s own counter budget—now, not in late August, after the administration has made its 2024 budget proposal.

For example, instead of begging the administration in late August, to find a way to increase Jack Hopkins social services funding, the council could make it a priority to increase Jack Hopkins funding to $1 million.

I’d like to watch a city council work session where councilmembers start with an allocation of $1 million to Jack Hopkins funding, and then build the rest of the 2024 budget around that—we’d sure learn a lot about their priorities and how much they know about budgeting.

Increasing Jack Hopkins funding to $1 million would mean about a threefold increase, grounded in the reality of documented need. This year, the council has just $323,000 of Jack Hopkins funding to distribute, but has received grant applications totalling about $936,000.

There’s one good thing about the choice of Tuesday for the budget advance meeting. It’s a great reminder of an event that always happens on a Tuesday—primary election day, May 2, which is exactly one week away from the budget advance meeting.

It’s a chance for voters to express their opinion about how well incumbents have done the job of city councilmember.