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Municipal budgets are strained and the solution needs to come from citizens, according to one city politician

New councillor Lisa Helps spurred an online discussion about a new way to engage people on a traditionally boring topic: the budget.

New councillor Lisa Helps spurred an online discussion about a new way to engage people on a traditionally boring topic: the budget.

Last year, Calgary’s new mayor, Naheed Nenshi, “revolutionized” the budget process – to use the city’s lingo –  by bringing those paying the bills into the discussion.

Citizen engagement is hardly a revolutionary concept, of course. It’s a value to which most governments subscribe, at least on paper.

Calgary’s innovation, however, was primarily in the timing: City Hall asked Calgarians for their input at the beginning of the budget process, rather than at the end.

It’s called “participatory budgeting,” and the numbers suggest a pent up interest: 23,000 Calgarians took part over three months.

It’s also an idea Victoria councillor Lisa Helps is floating through social media.

“There was a lot of uptake and discussion on Facebook,” said Helps.

In 2011, Victoria also took unprecedented steps to engage citizens in its budget process. It hosted a series of budget open houses in community centres and other venues.

They appear to have missed the mark, however, as evidenced by the widespread cry for greater transparency, voiced on the municipal campaign trail.

Their timing may have been part of the problem.

Budgeting in Victoria is an 11-month process, but public budget presentations don’t happen until the ninth month.

“We don’t need to go out and tell the public about the budget, we need to go out at the very outset and ask the public,” Helps said.

“There is a wealth of people in this city who have a whole series of wonderful ideas, and I actually think if we draw those in, we’ll end up with something different … and goodness knows we need something different. The city is in financial dire straits,” said Helps.

Rather than asking citizens to wade into big documents full of numbers, however, the discussion should be about values, priorities and trade-offs, she said.

“Do we want less potholes or do we want more bike lanes?” she asked. “Having that conversation is very different than saying, ‘Come to a series of really boring meetings where the department heads present their plans and you get to respond.’”

Calgary developed an online budget tool to help guide its citizens through this process. The B.C. government followed suit this month.

Helps, however, doesn’t want to simply copy Calgary’s model.

It’s not enough to simply invite citizens to give input, she argued. The problem is that special-interest groups can too easily dominate the discussion.

Dan Doherty, a director with a non-profit called Wise Democracy, has already tested one possible solution.

In 2011, he was contracted by the city to build “citizens insight councils” tasked with giving input into the city’s official community planning process. He found participants through a random selection process.

By calling 60 people, selected randomly by address, Doherty found 24 willing participants who agreed to a half-day workshop.

“It gets at people whose voices are not usually heard,” said Doherty.

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In Calgary, city staff is now evaluating the results of the  new budget process.

It didn’t bring to light any magic bullets for alleviating budget pressures, said Whitney Smithers, Calgary’s manager of business planning and budget co-ordination.

Citizens didn’t pinpoint any areas for cuts, she said. “There was some expectation … that when it was all on the table, that citizens might say ‘we really value this service, and to keep it lets let another service slide.’ But they didn’t really say that. What they did say is ‘we value it all.’”

Participation, however, brings its own benefits.

It helped citizens have a discussion about values and about the complexity of what the city does, said Smithers.

In Victoria, Helps anticipates it will also generate more goodwill.

“If we do it well then …. we generate less backlash.”

 

Open discussion

People aren’t waiting for the public hearing at city hall to share their feelings. The real discussion is happening online in the form of comments to Twitter, blogs and other social media.

Lisa Helps didn’t first take her budget idea to council as a motion – she uploaded it as a video to YouTube. In response, Mayor Dean Fortin posted this to his Facebook page:

“Great post Lisa! The reason a 4% tax lift will be a challenge: we have CUPE settlement at 2% and inflation running at 1.5% …  We usually increase taxes by 1.5% for infrastructure reserve, so we are looking at 5%, unless we cut services or not increase infrastructure reserves or we find more revenue…. Ideas and suggestions on any one of these options?”