It’s that time when we are all preparing budgets and ballot items for Town Meeting Day. Perhaps you have a bond vote planned or a question about a community investment, such as a new piece of equipment or a park. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has alerted the public to the increase in costs this year, it will be more important than ever to carefully explain your proposed budget or project to your community.
From the many hours that you and your staff work to bring forward a reasonable budget proposal or capital project, you are deeply aware of the details. However, your community is not*. This is where a well-crafted communication plan can help you get the word out.
Depending on the budget or project, the communications plan may be simple or complex and may use multiple channels and phases. Let’s walk through preparing for town meeting and informing your community about the proposed budget.
Step 1: Create a communication campaign fact sheet. Who has time to create and then recreate material for every incoming request or outlet for information on your budget? None of us! However, a communication fact sheet will help you easily produce the outreach materials you need for each information channel. As you craft the materials, you will find that you can often copy and paste sections of this fact sheet, adding a photo or a point of emphasis.
Your fact sheet should include the key points that voters should know about the budget, including the total budget amount, the tax rate, the increase over the prior year, and the major items that are affecting the rate (such as paving costs, special projects, increased healthcare costs for employees, etc.). Be sure to include the date, times, and location(s) for the meeting and voting.
Step 2: Determine how information flows. In order to ensure that you create a great campaign, you need to understand how your community gets its information. Is it from the local newspaper, Front Porch Forum, a Twitter feed or Facebook group, or posters in the grocery store? (Don’t forget word of mouth!) Do a quick assessment and create a list of the sources your voters use.
Step 3: Build your plan using your resources. Next, build your plan using your list of sources. Let’s talk about some of them.
Website (FREE). Your website is your flagship source for dispensing accurate information to the public. In addition to providing access to meeting minutes and agendas, zoning information, and annual reports, your website can highlight current information on projects or ballot items. Carve out a space on the front page for an image or teaser that links to a full page about your budget.
Then, build a page that features the information that you need the community to know. Create sections on the page that organize the information logically. For a budget proposal, it might include the budget adoption process, capital improvement program, or general fund budget. Use bullets where possible to make it easy for the reader to skim the details. For example, under general fund budget, you could break down the information into proposed areas such as revenue and expenses, and include a bullet for the school district information.
Remember, your web-based information can be easily and continually updated at no cost!
Social Media (FREE). Keeping multiple social media channels updated can become time-consuming. Therefore, choose one channel to start and post to it regularly. For example, create a Facebook page for your town or city and plan to post to it twice each week in the months leading up to Town Meeting Day.
What do you post? You can share required information such as when and where the vote will take place. Highlight any new projects or items in the budget. Include a picture of regular work that is part of the budget – like paving or grading roads, fire fighters headed to a call, or a family using a park – and note in your text that the budget provides these resources. Be sure to always include a link to your website to access more information.
Front Porch Forum (limited posts). Front Porch Forum (FPF) is a widely used resource throughout our state and can be highly effective as it lands directly in a resident’s email box. There are limitations on how many times you can post each month, so be sure to use each one. If you are allowed two posts per month, plan to include a succinct overview of the key points of the budget and refer readers to your website for more details.
Print Media ($). You know you need to provide notice of the vote/annual meeting in your paper of record, but you can also use the newspaper to provide an easy-to-read advertisement. A well-designed ad should include the critical points that are affecting your budget this year along with a recap of the important services that are provided in the budget. Plan to publish it once or twice. Always refer readers to your website for more information.
You can also create printed materials, such as a flyer that can be hung in your library, grocery store, or other community facility. Many times, the flyer is handy for your city council or town selectboard to use when they are speaking with constituents. It can also be inserted into your local newspaper.
Using these communication channels, you can circulate your information widely, which in turn can help get your budget passed.
Director of Community Engagement & Innovation
City of South Burlington
Note: Regarding the legal context for “campaigns,” please see Do Towns Need to Fill Out Campaign Finance Reports? and Vermont’s improper influence law.