Council Retreat – Day 1

Today was the first day of the two-day annual council retreat. Since I’ve only been on the council for six months, this was my first retreat.

The purpose of the retreat is to two-fold: Create a strategic plan for our city while shaping our priorities for next year’s budget.

I have been arguing for a strategic plan for our city since I arrived on the council. Running a city without a strategic plan is like bulding a home without a blueprint. At the end of construction, you’ll have a place to live. It just won’t look very nice, the rooms won’t connect, and it won’t be built to last.

My desire to develop a strategic plan was reaffirmed by residents at my Neighborhood Listening Sessions, who said it was among their top ten priorities.

This planning process is entirely new for Dallas, and is actually on the cutting edge of most cities across the nation. While most comparable cities have a strategic plan, they don’t tie that plan to expenditures. We, on the other hand, are creating a strategic plan tied directly to our budget. This will give us a road map for our long-term goals while also guiding our annual spending to ensure we reach those goals.

Here’s how it works. From a strategic planning aspect, we’ve got nine “key focus areas”:

-Trinity River Corridor
-Natural Resources
-Culture, Recreation and Education
-Health and Dignity

Teams of cross-departmental staff responsible for these key focus areas developed a set of proposed goals for each key focus area.

For example, in the “Safety” key focus area, the over-arching goal is to “Make people feel safe where they live, work, and play.” The staff then developed major factors that contribute to making people feel safer, and then sub-factors. The staff then put together requests for proposals that city departments will compete to fulfill:

Key Focus Area: Safety
Major Factor: Physical Environment
Requests for proposals:
Enhance actual and perceived levels of safety through improvements to the physical environment by addressing one or more of the following categories:
-Clean neighborhoods
-Safe buildings
-Built and maintained to required codes
-Premise violations
-Street conditions

This is a totally new way of thinking about our city planning and about our budget. Instead of giving about the same amount of money to city departments year after year, departments will have to compete for money allocated to specific goals by coming up with the best, most cost effective proposal to achieve that goal.

Emily Ramshaw of the Dallas Morning News explained the process well in her report:

At the retreat, the council will take its key focus areas, such as public safety and economic development, and agree on the end results such as creating a safer city or promoting a thriving economy. Council members will consider steps and strategies to reach these results. Then they’ll establish the total “price” of the budget – how much constituents are willing to spend for these results.

In the coming months, city departments will design new programs or tweak existing ones to meet the council’s desired results. Council members will prioritize each program and allocate funds in the budgeting process until they’ve reached their price cap. And all of their work – including long-term results, short-term strategies and available resources – will come together to form a strategic plan.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of this process at first. There are still some aspects of the plan that I’m concerned about. For example, this is a “top down” strategic plan. Instead of holding townhall meetings throughout the city to determine what our residents’ priorities are, the City Manager developed the priority list. However, the priority list addresses nearly all of the primary concerns raised by residents at the dozen neighborhood listening sessions I held, so I am becoming convinced this is going to be a plan that reflects the goals of Dallas residents, not just the city’s bureaucrats or elected officials.