Jersey City 2021 Budget: Dig into budget using keyword search

This is part of a series on the 2021 city budget. See the full series here. The 2021 budget documents are online here.

In this post I want to look at the proposed 2021 Jersey City budget using three questions as a launch point:

  1. How is the budget broken down?
  2. Has the budget ever been balanced?
  3. How much of the budget is dependent upon traffic/parking violations?

The third question is a good pivot to interactive datasets I created below that allow you to hunt and peck for data in the budget using a keyword search.

1-How is the budget broken down?

At its core, the city budget summarizes revenues (where does the money come from?) then expense (what are collectively funding?). NJ mandates all cities and towns to use a standard set of revenue and expense categories (illustrated below using Jersey City data).

The budget process is outlined on a state level and towns and cities have to comply with NJ process. So, every town and city is required to fill out this standard budget template.  Most of these top level revenue and expense categories are not intuitively labeled, i.e. there is a lot of technical terminology and jargon. But when you dig down to the department and line item detail, the budget grows a little easier to unpack (more on that below).

2-Does the budget "balance" each year?

Generally, yes, the budget is "balanced" each year because revenue equals expense, and there is typically a surplus included on the revenue side of the budget. That said, while revenue is listed first in the budget, I think it's helpful to imagine expense as the horse and revenue as the cart. Meaning, a city budget is a collective pooling of resources to achieve a collective outcome, and while one number in that budget (the property tax) often gets top-line billing in news reports, it's really the expense side that we should have our eyes in. Because a key question ultimately is: what are collectively trying to support? So, here's one way to think about the budget process, as a community:

a--What needs to be funded (what are the services we collectively want to have?)
b--What available revenues exist to fund the services?

For example: let's say a city wants to

  • fund $10 of expense for a mix of police, fire, and youth programming...
  • ...and say there is $3 of local revenue, $2 of state aid, and $1 of PILOT fees, or $6 total revenue other than property tax. The city must pass a $4 city tax levy to increase its revenue to $10 which could then fund the expense. [And, a note: the "city tax levy" is just the amount of revenue raise via property tax to help fund the city budget -- so another way to think about the "city levy" is: the entire pie of property tax that has to get carved up into thousands of slices ... those slices are our individual tax bills.]

Of course, there may be an incentive to have a lower city levy ... let's say there's public support for a $3 city levy (not $4)...if that's the case, then expense will have to come down by $1 since the city cannot pay for expense unless it has the available revenue. So, some services will have to be cut.

Big picture, we can see that this is an iterative process of determining what is needed in community but also what is supportable with public dollars. And, this is a deliberately simplistic example I'm using; the actual process here is made more complicated by real world dollar figures, structural expense steeped in complexity (like union contracts or debt obligations), and state and local law wrapped around the entire process, and more. That said, this should all be accessible to taxpayers and the job of our elected is to help us understand it. [As an aside: I will have a separate post about budget transparency - stay tuned for that.]

3-How much of the budget is funded by traffic or parking violations?

This is such a great question because it's so concrete. I created the visualizations below to help a taxpayer dig into the data to glean insight into the answer.  If we enter "parking" into the keyword search, we can see $11 million of parking-related revenues in the budget

  • Parking enforcement fees - $1.7M
  • Parking lot licenses - $500K
  • Parking lot tax - $8M
  • Parking meters - $1M

There may be other traffic related items in the budget, so this keyword search is intended as a start, not an all-inclusive dive, into the budget. For instance, I was also curious about parking fines and penalties (e.g. parking tickets). So I searched for "fine" and found additional $14.7M of revenue through "Fines and costs." I have no idea if or how much parking-related fines are in this number, but it's at least a start if I wanted to dig further into this question.

If you cared enough (and I encourage this), you could ask a local council person; the council is currently (as of July 8th) holding committee meetings around the budget and have access to more detailed data then is shown in the public budget file. Here is an example of data shared on the city council budget committee meetings (this callout is from the July 8th meeting):

Dig into the data using your own key words

I provided two data tables below -- one for revenue and one for expense. This is tabular which may not agree with readers who find rows and columns overwhelming (no charts or pictures), but leverage the search function to dig in. If you enter a term that is not contained in the budget, you'll get a blank result. Simply delete the term to show the full dataset again.

Key words that appear on revenue side of budget

Key words that appear on expense side of budget

Revenue Key Word Search:

Expense Key Word Search:

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