Why does Newton's wastewater treatment plant need an upgrade? What is the average response time for the city's police department? How is the city spending its $44 million budget for 2013, and what budget challenges is the city facing in 2014?

Community members had the opportunity to find out the answers to these questions, and others, at the city's "budget fair" Tuesday afternoon at the Rec Center. Representatives from various departments, such as finance, public works and fire/EMS, were on hand to talk about city services, and city commissioners also were present to hear feedback from the public.

"We just hope that people come with questions," said Suzanne Loomis, city engineer/director of public works. "... It's good when you have that face-to-face conversation."

This is the second year the city has hosted a budget fair. Although attendance was not good last year, the city tried to publicize the event more through a variety of media, and commissioners also encouraged their constituents to come, said Lunda Asmani, assistant city manager for budget and finance.

Asmani hoped community members would come to the fair and learn about the services provided by the city. It's a good time for city staff to share about what it takes to provide services in the community — and for community members to share what their expectations for services are.

"They can have an opportunity to discuss and ask questions directly of those who provide those services," Asmani said.

Park Superintendent Burke Lewis wanted to share with the community about the parks department's expanding acreage, and encourage people to use the parks more. He also was hoping to hear questions from the public.

"It's easier to stop and ask somebody than to pick up the phone and call," he said. "You can get all your questions in one (place)."

Asmani said events like the budget fair are an important part of government transparency. Unless people have an opportunity to interact directly with city staff on a regular basis, they may not know why certain positions or services are needed.

"Sometimes people think what we do is a mystery," Asmani said. "I hope this will help demystify city government."

Newton Fire/EMS Chief Mark Willis said misinformation can spread easily, and the budget fair provided an opportunity to speak directly to city officials and get information straight from the source.

"Hopefully someone that has visited here will walk out of here with a better idea of how the city operates," he said.

Loomis hoped the budget fair sent an additional message: that city staff want to be accessible to the public, and they are always open to questions, any time of the year.

"We just want to make sure people know we're available," she said.