By Trevor Busch
A proposed budgeting process which would allow the public more control over the selection of capital projects was roundly criticized by town council at their most recent meeting.
Known as participatory budgeting, the process implements democratic deliberation and decision making to allow ordinary citizens to decide how to allocate part of a municipal budget, usually involving capital projects. According to administration, participatory budgeting has been “around for a long time” and has been used by other municipalities to increase transparency in the budgeting cycle regarding levels of service or other areas being considered over a multi-year budget framework.
“Some municipalities have forums involving the public to talk about the budget,” said CAO Greg Birch, speaking at town council’s Aug. 15 regular meeting. “Calgary, I understand, is five minutes, anybody that wants to come in, it takes a couple of days to do that. In British Columbia it’s mandatory that you have to interact with the public about the budget.”
A promotional video on participatory budgeting was reviewed in open session by town council, and can be found online at http://vimeo.com/162743651.
“There’s a couple of different options that we can go about,” said finance director Devin Wannop. “We could go about it like B.C. They go after their first draft budget proposal, council will go and have a forum, and it’s just a discussion about what the budget is, what it’s looking like, what the concerns are, what the pitfalls or successes are going to be. Then there’s another one, that’s become more popular lately, is where you get people to decide on the project you want. So if there’s a project that’s similar in value essentially — so if you had two projects each for $100,000, but you only had money to do one, you can bring in the citizens and have them vote on which one they want to do.”
Administration noted participatory budgeting has been utilized to allow the public to “make the decision on what they would like to see for the capital project”, enhancing choice over a number of different projects that are alike in financial implications through a democratic process similar to a referendum, in which the highest total of votes cast would determine the project to be funded.
“This is something that is going towards more best practice and transparency over what our budget looks like,” continued Wannop. “I think it would be a great idea, especially since we’re going into a three-year operating cycle and a two-year capital cycle. I think it just opens us to a little bit more transparency.”
Although administration asserted the “financial cost would be minimal as we would use resources (staff) that have already been budgeted for”, this suggestion was contested by Coun. Joe Strojwas who immediately weighed in on the proposal.
“I can see this is going to be a very costly and timely process getting input. I can see where this is going. My question, after watching that, are we going to need councillors down the road? Because obviously the direction is going to be made by people, so we won’t need councillors. Here in town, we already have the process where recreation has open house forums for deciding on what projects they want. We have open houses on land-use bylaws. We did this for the business community and had a real lack of participation.”
Strojwas was critical of the extra time and effort which might be required of town council and administration in implementing such an initiative.
“I’m just wondering, as councillors we already put a lot of time and effort into this community, we want to make things better. At what point are we going to become full-time councillors, because we’re going to have so many more things on our plate to do, because of what you call — and I can understand — ‘open and transparent’ government,” said Strojwas.“I think there’s ways to do more open and transparent government without having all these forums and people voting. I really wonder about the lack of participation that we’re seeing for some of these things. I’m really divided on this, because I want to see open and transparent government, yes. But I want to think about the time and cost, time spent by councillors and administration in putting all this together, and the cost of that. As councillors and administration, I can see it being it very costly and timely. Right now, I wouldn’t be in favour of this here without more thinking and study, because it’s obviously going to lead to some costs for administration to put this all together.”
Lack of community participation involved in previous attempts to gauge the public’s viewpoint on various issues have been failures, according to Strojwas, who saw a danger in this kind of budgeting process should these trends continue.
“When you see all the time that Aline (Holmen, recreation director) and the recreation department went through to have all these open forums about what to have, and a handful of people came out and made the decision. Are we going to have the same thing here if we proceed down the budgetary process for the fall? I’m not ready to OK this for this fall. I think we need to give this way more consideration and thought before we proceed down this road. Comments from recreation, such a small handful of people made the decision for what the priorities were going to be. We could have the same thing here, going down a road where a handful of people come out and make some decisions that maybe isn’t where we should be going, if we adopt this.”
Administration asserted participatory budgeting would be a way “we could get the community more involved in our budget process. They would have more involvement while also getting educated on the costs of operating a municipality”.
“I believe in transparency in government,” said Coun. Rick Popadynetz, who offered some limited support for the process. “This works well in larger cities, Houston, Boston, Chicago, New York City, some of the larger centres. It’s great, something to work forward to, but as Councillor Strojwas said, it’s an increase in the level of service, and with an increase in the level of service comes cost. So we need to think about that. We need to benefit our taxpayer dollars by making good decisions, and not increasing the level of service. I think down the road, with the five-year budget, I think this could be easily implemented, and every five years, people get involved in the budgetary process.”
Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux was amenable to the idea, but was doubtful of how the process might be implemented in a small municipality.
“It’s becoming very popular in Ontario, but as has been mentioned here, those occurred in the larger population areas. I really like the idea of our citizens having a say in our budget. I’d like to see it down the road, I don’t think we’re ready for it yet. What I also liked about it was the way it engaged the community to buy into projects within their community. In reading an article, they allowed kids as young as 16 to vote on these projects, and it kind of engaged these kids in government, and it opened the eyes of lot of people as to how budgeting works for a community. But at the size that we’re at now, maybe we can invite when we get started on our budget process having one council night where they can come in and have their say on what they’d like to see in our budget. As to projects? I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet. I love the idea, but down the road maybe.”
Coun. Randy Sparks saw little value in the budget proposal, suggesting the Town of Taber is already open and transparent regarding their budget processes.
“I’ve never known any council in the budget process to hide anything from the residents. All the information that we receive, every resident in the town of Taber has the opportunity to look at and see the same information that we as councillors have. So it is open already. I found that this movie here was for special projects, that these people were coming and voting on a special project. That’s much different, and the residents in the town of Taber have the same thing — if there’s a special project in recreation, they have the opportunity to come and speak about it and voice their opinion. They have the opportunity to speak to council members about the budget or special projects.”
Sparks went on to attack the video that had been presented to council as little more than a handful of special interest groups pursuing their own agendas.
“So I think while this might look good — everyone is having a wonderful time in this video — it didn’t look to me like there was a whole lot of people involved in any of it. This wasn’t Grassy Lake or Vauxhall, it was Chicago, La Hoya, California, and yet I didn’t see any more than 50 people at any of it. I think we’re very open here within the Town of Taber, any resident can get information, I don’t think at this point — even though it might seem like a good idea — I personally can’t support this.”
Following a description of how the process is implemented on a more limited basis in British Columbia, where citizens have the opportunity to speak to municipal councils on budget decisions, Ross-Giroux suggested this could be implemented without much undue impact.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to that, just to see what the response might be. We do have special budget meetings as it is, could we not have one night where we open it, just put out the word that we are discussing budget this night. Just to gauge the interest. If there’s no interest then we don’t continue the process.”
Mayor Henk DeVlieger was also open to the proposal suggested by Ross-Giroux.
“It’s good to be transparent. We represent the citizens of Taber, that’s what we do. There’s always a blurb in the Cornhusk Chronicals, and it always ends with the same thing, anyone with ideas, questions, please talk to your councillors, that’s what we’re for. I don’t know how many responses they get with people that come with ideas. They don’t line up. But to give people an opportunity, I think there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Following deliberation at their Aug. 15 regular meeting, town council voted 4-2 to direct administration to host an open forum for council’s first budgetary night allowing members of the public to come and have an open session to comment with regard to the upcoming budget cycle. Coun.(s) Randy Sparks and Andrew Prokop voted in opposition to the motion, while Coun. Jack Brewin was absent.