When forced to choose, how do you decide?

In Anoka County Thursday night, almost 150 residents of the new city of Nowthen attended a public hearing to have their say on whether the city should raise taxes or trim the police protection it gets from the sheriff.

At the same time, in Edina, five long-time residents gathered around a table and discussed city budget choices, trying to offer suggestions for city leaders. Should enterprises like the city’s golf course or ice arena support themselves or get help from the taxpayer, for example?

Next week in Duluth, voters will decide between property taxes and less park and library spending. Elsewhere, cities have surveyed residents online and in the mail to get their opinions. Earlier this year, the League of Minnesota Cities spent months going to about a dozen cities to talk with residents about what they want their communities to do. The League is going back next year.

And, of course, in the next month or so, everybody can get in on the action at truth-in-taxation hearings being held by cities, schools and counties throughout Minnesota.

Communities come to judgment in a variety of ways about how much money to spend and what to spend it on. Some of those ways work better than others.

Twenty years ago, for example, truth-in-taxation hearings were jammed and were a pretty clear way to tell elected officials that people thought taxes were going up too fast. Lately, a lot of those annual hearings have played to empty auditoriums, providing precious little guidance to the leaders trying to set priorities.

That’s why the Edina session was interesting. Convinced the truth-in-taxation hearings weren’t particularly helpful, Edina this year enlisted the Citizens League to lead three discussions this week that delved into the choices before the city.

A lot of cities would love to have Edina’s problems. A main question this fall, for example, is what to do with a one-time $2.5 million excess, partly a result of the success of the city’s liquor stores. Should the city use it for property tax relief or speed up spending on some capital projects? More generally, is it more important to avoid property tax increases or maintain quality services and amenities?

For two hours, guided by the Citizens League’s Stacy Becker, the five batted these questions back and forth in front of the mayor, city staff and a council member, who were there to provide information but weren’t the main event.

At one point an Edina retiree offered up, “I need less bling in my life and more quality of life for everyone.”

But even among the few residents last night, you got a glimpse of the difficulty in coming to judgment. Via instant-feedback clickers, the five managed at one point to express the desire that city operations like the golf course and arenas should pay for themselves and in the next minute express at least some opposition to higher fees, selling more ad revenue, selling naming rights and relying on private donations.

Every idea has an enemy, as one official in another city complained to me recently.

Even so, as Mayor James Hovland said afterward, it was a good start on improving how Edina makes its choices.

“We’re trying to tap the collective intelligence in the community,” said city manager Scott Neal.

Beyond all the immediate decisions about property taxes and street repair and police protection, how to do that is really the most interesting question.

If you want to see this in action, especially if you’re in Edina, you can join a webinar Sunday evening. See this for details. And go to our Forced to Choose site for lots of information about communities making choices.