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Missoula Mayor John Engen

MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

As many as 200 citizens of Missoula are getting ready to play the “budget games.”

The idea? They’ll create a city budget with fake money – and their decisions will influence the actual budget.

The author of the real budget, though, doesn’t plan to attend the games, and Mayor John Engen has told department heads they don’t have to go either.

“I am so not interested in being a Grinch about this and have worked really hard not to be a Grinch about it because I really admire Caitlin’s instincts and interests here,” Engen said of Councilwoman Caitlin Copple. “It’s just for me, the way it’s structured today, I don’t think it’s going to inform me a great deal.

“I hope it informs council, and if we do it again, I hope we can work on timing so that I could be much more confident (the games) is grounded in the reality of our budget.”

Every year for weeks during budget season, the City Council asks for comment on the budget. Many times, it hears only crickets.

So with financial support from the city and outside funders, Councilwoman Copple is bringing the budget games to Missoula on Feb. 11 as a way to get more feedback from citizens on city finances, which this year include a general fund of more than $50 million.

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Copple said she’s disappointed the mayor won’t attend, but she’s certain he has his reasons since he’s worked on the budget for eight years. She doesn’t expect the games will be perfect this year, but she’s eager to hear more from the people she serves.

“I do think there’s nowhere to go but up when it comes to how we engage in the budgeting process,” Copple said.

The Every Voice Engaged Foundation is putting on the games, a format used initially to help companies such as Cisco with budget priorities. More recently, the games also are being used to help cities and nonprofits.

Every Voice executive director Steve Dodds will be in Missoula to host the games, and he said he isn’t privy to the mayor’s reasons for bowing out. The mayor may have legitimate concerns, but Dodds said in any organization, the leader is important.

“So it’s better if leaders of organizations are involved in this process because that gives it obviously a legitimacy, and participation (shows) the willingness of the organization to listen to its constituency,” Dodds said.

The games also are an opportunity for city leaders to educate the public, he said. For instance, people don’t necessarily know that some federal pots of money can be used only on certain items.

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In San Jose, Calif., the police chief, parks supervisor and other department heads attend the games to answer questions. What happens if you cut staff in one department in half, say?

“There’s implications to saying something like that,” Dodds said.

In the second year of games in San Jose, the city adopted 80 percent of the recommendations. That city was in financial crisis, but Dodds said the feedback is valuable regardless.

There, the retention rate is high, with participants returning year after year.

“The objective is to have fun, right?” Dodds said. “I’m not guaranteeing fun because some of these issues are very difficult. But it’s an opportunity to meet other people in the city that are interested in the well-being of Missoula.”

Another outcome of the games in San Jose is that trust develops between city leaders and citizens, Dodds said. That means it’s less painful to take budget presentations on the road.

“The leaders of the organizations that are obviously the most active in those kinds of meetings have become collaborators instead of confrontational,” Dodds said.

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In Missoula, the City Charter calls for the mayor to deliver a budget to the Missoula City Council, and the council to adopt a budget.

Mayor Engen said he is interested in hearing from citizens on budget priorities, but he has plans to do so through an Association of City Managers survey that allows people to grade services and prioritize them. Plus, he said, it’s his and the council’s job to deliver a budget.

“The way I look at this is that folks elect us to do our best to understand the complexities of the budgeting process, the needs, and I think they expect us to show some leadership in terms of municipal investment,” he said.

If Missoula opts to play the games again, Engen said he would like to spend more time crafting the questions to ask citizens and the choices to present them, and ensuring the people who play the game are “better grounded in the reality of our budget.”

“Some of the premises are so narrow and constrained that they might not reflect a larger budget reality,” Engen said. (See sidebar for a list of the cuts and enhancements players take on.)

At this time, he’s in the thick of the budget reality, so he said the outcome of the games may or may not inform the upcoming budget.

Elected officials are invited to observe the games but not play them, and Engen isn’t the only one who is skeptical.

City Councilman Jason Wiener said he plans to attend, but he hears feedback from constituents on priorities all year long. In other words, just because there’s sparse comment at public meetings doesn’t mean the council creates the budget in a vacuum.

As Wiener sees it, the games also don’t confront the main problem of making a city budget. Year after year, the growth of expenses from inflation outstrips the growth in revenue. The annual challenge, then?

“How are we going to keep doing what we did last year?” Wiener said. “So the format of this (game) ignores the meat of the budget in favor of the gravy.”

The other problem, he said, is the games trivialize the consequences of the actual budget: “It’s called a budget game, but it’s really not a game considering that there are hundreds of people’s livelihoods – and tens of thousands of people’s quality of life – that depend on the budget.”

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian