How Texas towns use social media to make budgets understandable

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Budgets and property taxes can be complicated and confusing, but some Texas cities say snapping, tweeting or posting key details can help get the point across. 

The Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform heard testimony from various towns on what social media strategies they’ve implemented within their local governments. The City of Arlington has pivoted to using Facebook and YouTube videos to break down their budgets. 

“We break it down so that they know – this is how much we spend per person on public safety, this is how much per person it costs to do libraries,” council member Victoria Farrar-Myers said. 

Farrar-Myers says Arlington strives to connect with people of all ages. Paper documents are still available, but short, attention-grabbing clips on social media connect with younger people. 

“We have to continue to not only look at how we engage our citizens, but we also have to continue to stretch ourselves,” she said. “With changing technology and changing demographics and changing generational preferences, it’s always important for us to every year look at and challenge ourselves to do innovative things.” 

Information on budgets and taxes need to be “fast, digestible, easy and also put in a way people understand,” she said. 

“When you start talking about rollback rates and you start using all this technical language, it’s hard to understand,” she said. “It’s hard for practitioners to understand.” 

Austin Tech Alliance recognizes the demand to get information compiled and available for access through the newest technologies. 

“Whether that’s social media or email, it’s the easiest way to get in contact with folks right now,” executive director David Edmonson said. 

The organization partnered with Open Austin and Glasshouse Policy to host an event for Open Austin’s website, Budget Party. 

“Budget Party was a website designed by Open Austin and allows folks to go in and take the real numbers that city council is considering when going through their budget deliberations and then reformat them, tweak them and shift the resources around as they see fit.” 

This is the type of feedback that helps council members understand what constituents’ priorities are, Edmonson said. 

However, some noted that Texas towns with limited resources, staff, and aging populations will have a tougher time tapping into tech to get information across. 

“These jurisdictions do the best they can with the tools they have and the things they know to get the job done for their citizens,” Jay Socol with the City of College Station said. 

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform touched on low participation in local elections and tax hearings. He suggested shifting these elections to November, where voter turnout is slightly better. 

“We have two uniform election dates,” he said. “We should actually start trying to stick to it.” 

“If we want participation in the tax hearings and we want participation in democracy, we can’t turn around and let people decide they want to pick a date in the summer and have a special election when we have turnouts as low as one percent,” Bettencourt continued. “It’s just not the right public policy for this democracy.” 

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