Getting elected officials to ask voters to dish out more of their hard-earned money for services as “mundane” as drinking water and wastewater treatment — things the average taxpayer takes for granted — is difficult in the best of times. With many cities, counties, and states already laboring under severe budget cuts, you'll need to become a public relations strategist to convince stakeholders that upgrades, expansions, and maintenance are necessary expenditures.
“No politician wants to be known for raising rates,” says Marsi Steirer, deputy director of the San Diego Water Department.
Below are ways to give governing officials the reasons they need to move beyond their comfort zone.
GET THE PUBLIC INVOLVED: EDUCATE, INFORM, ENGAGE
A citizen sitting in the front row at your municipality's board meeting, supporting your proposed rate increase, is a powerful incentive. Elected officials are more inclined to act on citizen requests and recommendations.
In Steirer's case, forming a public advisory group composed of 30 private citizens was key to funding a much-needed multimillion-dollar capital improvements program (CIP) to upgrade San Diego's aging infrastructure, which included three water treatment plants, in 1997. Before then, the water department hadn't had a water rate increase in 10 years, and elected officials wouldn't consider an increase without public support.
With the help of engineering firm CDM, the public advisory group evaluated current and future needs for water supply and infrastructure, toured water facilities, and attended a series of 11 four-hour workshops. After a year of research and meetings, the public advisory group endorsed the CIP to the city council.
But outreach didn't end with a citizen advisory panel.
The department also partnered with community relations firm Katz & Associates Inc. to host focus groups that gauged understanding of water system issues, and willingness to accept a rate increase. The department used the feedback to develop tools to educate constituents about the purpose, need, and goal of capital funding, including project fact sheets, a video, a water bill insert, maps, and brochures.
Water department employees conducted slideshow and video presentations illustrating the city's deteriorating pipes to more than 60 community organizations. A 24-hour information hotline was established to make it easy for residents to ask questions about the infrastructure needs.
These efforts helped the department garner public support and secure a 6%/year increase for three years to fund the initial stage of the CIP.
IDENTIFY NEED —AND SHOW THE NUMBERS
“Tell them what you need the money for,” says Gary Fern, executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority in Virginia. Provide the details, including why the increase is necessary, how the money will be spent, and why it's a greater priority than other proposed expenditures.
“Present the real numbers. Don't just add to what you did the year before,” says Fern. “We are zero-based, meaning each year we begin developing the budget from zero and do not arbitrarily add to the preceding year's budget.”