Residents float ideas to trim $6 million from Victoria’s municipal budget

Coun. Lisa Helps trots out innovative way to get input on priorities

Victoria Coun. Lisa Helps holds a mitt full of Monopoly money during a budget workshop with Fairfield residents at the Garry Oak Room last night. Helps wants citizen input into how city hall can shave $6 million off its current expenses for the upcoming three-year budget.

Victoria Coun. Lisa Helps holds a mitt full of Monopoly money during a budget workshop with Fairfield residents at the Garry Oak Room last night. Helps wants citizen input into how city hall can shave $6 million off its current expenses for the upcoming three-year budget.

As the City of Victoria looks to trim $6 million from its budget over the next three years, one councillor is looking to residents for innovative solutions.

Budget workshops are being held across the city by Coun. Lisa Helps. Participants are split into groups to brainstorm possible ways of generating savings, using board game money to divvy up expenses.

“What I’m looking for right now are ideas to feed into the process early, to ensure that citizen voices are there at the outset,” Helps said.

In April, council passed a motion to restrict annual property tax increases to 3.25 per cent until 2015, but it faces difficult decisions on what services need to be scaled back to achieve that.

A formal public consultation on the budget will take place before council this fall, but the workshops offer a hands-on approach to allocating municipal dollars.

Fairfield resident Ken Rouche attended the first workshop in July and organized a similar exercise last Wednesday that attracted about 30 people at the Garry Oak Room.

“I think this is trailblazing in terms of what Lisa is doing,” Rouche said. “This is the first time I’ve known a councillor to bring these issues to the community.”

Rouche has grown frustrated with the lack of housing affordability in Victoria for young families, a challenge made more difficult by property tax hikes in recent years. He said the proposed Capital Region secondary sewage treatment project could make matters worse. If approved, the project will raise annual tax bills between $350 and $700 for Victoria homeowners.

“My block is populated by seniors like myself – property rich and income poor,” he said. “It’s sucking the life out of my neighbourhood and it’s jeopardizing my city.”

Helps said one strong idea emerging from the workshops is the potential to engage citizen volunteers and rely less on external consultants.

“We can draw on the wealth and expertise of our citizens, particularly our retired folks … who want to be engaged in our communities and have some expertise,” she said. The selection process would be similar to citizens advisory committees, where candidates are vetted for qualifications.

“Rather than contract out everything, we could pay residents small stipends to do the work.”

The next budget workshop will be held Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at the James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies St. More will be scheduled in Fernwood and Vic West in the coming months.

Helps encourages anyone with concerns about city spending to come out and contribute in an informal setting.

“All stones are being turned over. There’s nothing that’s not getting scrutiny,” she said.

dpalmer@vicnews.com