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Raising Revenue: Communication Strategies for Cities

Most cities throughout California are facing a quandary – how can they replace revenue that’s derived from economic activities when the economy has mostly come to a standstill? And for some, calling the current situation a quandary is probably a gross understatement.

Vital city services such as public safety, parks and recreation, youth and senior services, and infrastructure improvements are supported by the very revenue streams that have been hardest hit during the state’s Stay at Home order. Cities rely on sales/use taxes and transient occupancy tax (TOT)/bed taxes for general fund expenditures, and those revenue streams have plummeted. Cities are laying off and furloughing employees, and reducing city services while tapping reserves built up since the Great Recession over a decade ago.

As cities prepare their FY 2020-21 budgets and look to protect as many public safety and community services as possible, they must embrace two key strategies – find out where voters stand on priorities and funding opportunities, and communicate like crazy.

Now isn’t the time to shrink away from this challenge. Now is the time to lean in and be a strong local leader for the vulnerable and frightened community members.

Knowing where your constituents stand on issues and what they see as priorities are the first steps toward making decisions the community can understand and embrace. A recent survey by FM3 provides a wealth of information for cities, including some key insights into the mood of the California electorate.

Cities generally have built some goodwill with constituents during the pandemic, with voters approving of how local governments have handled the pandemic with almost 80% support. And support for local revenue measures are generally the same as they were before the pandemic.

Whether through formal polling or informal surveys, now more than ever it is critical to know how your constituents feel and what they want to see from their local leaders.

What isn’t as clear is if cities are communicating the difficult decisions they face. Most cities I’ve seen have ramped up external communications. I’ve seen more newsletters/press releases, website updates and social media posts with infographics with updates on COVID-19 and community services than any other time I can remember. This is commendable. But communications need to go beyond updates about Stay at Home orders and what businesses are opening up.

Cities must be honest with constituents about its financial outlook and how this will impact the services residents and businesses have come to rely on. As my colleagues John and Kathryn stated in a blog last month, “it’s important now more than ever that local agencies communicate with their communities and are direct about the challenges they are facing as well as the steps each agency is taking to protect vital services and jobs.

Two-Way Communications

And it isn’t just about enhancing outward communications. Municipalities need to establish two-way communications systems to hear from community members about their thoughts and concerns. Be responsive and take community sentiments into consideration when making the tough decisions that are before too many cities.

Cities must embrace these principles to navigate through the challenges they’re faced with, and we’re here to help tell their story and connect with their constituents, ultimately building stronger communities.

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