2015 Budget E-Townhall Recap

Last  night was the first ever E-Town Hall at the City of Victoria, an event held to collect public input on how to spend the 2014 operating surplus in accordance with the draft strategic plan. This was in comparison to the 2014 E-Open House which was held for “the public to learn more and provide general comment on the 2014-2018 Financial Plan“.

Here is the video from last night’s E Town Hall (all 4.5 hours).

Here is the video from the 2014 E Open House (1 hour).

What was the difference between the two events? The event in 2014 was presided over by then Mayor Dean Fortin who provided a general introduction to finances at the city, financial trends and plans for the 2014 budget. He then fielded a series of questions on the budget from folks in the audience as well as from folks (like me) watching online.

Last night in comparison started with a video, some general comments from the Director of Strategic Planning and Public Engagement, and the Director of Finance then read pages six (general service stats) and eighteen (general expenditures) from the 2018-19  Draft Financial plan.  It was a dreadful start to the evening. The next four hours were then taken up by people standing up to speak.

Of note is that Mayor Helps only spoke in response to a few items. She did not speak on her own initiative about the budget in depth or what it represents (e.g., taxes, utilities, service levels). She did however say that history was being made last night because so many people took the initiative to bring their community out to be part of #VicTownHall.

There were indeed a lot of people there last night.

Etownhall

It was quite something.

But what actually happened?

According to the agenda faceplate for the meeting, it was a completely unstructured space and opportunity for Public Input on the Budget and Strategic Plan. Everyone had three minutes to speak and all Mayor Helps asked of the audience was that we refrained from clapping because “the opposite does not feel nice”.

And so people got up to speak – almost automatically there was a line stretching from the podium. Lots of people wanted to talk, and talk they did on a variety of topics, for a variety of reason to a variety of ends. Like I said, there was no structure to it. Just a bunch of people, representing a bunch of causes coming up to talk to Council about what they think is important to spend money on/advocate for.

The people coming to the podium just wanted to talk it seemed. In comparison, the online responses that also got read last night, were primarily direct questions or budget related requests. It was an interesting contrast. Of all the folks that I listened to in the two hours that I was there, only one that I could think of actually made a tangible budgetary requests (re: the $4.5Million 2014 surplus) and this was the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition who had a three point plan.

Most everyone else was there with freeform observations, a variety of needs and other serious assorted wants. Lots of people talked about the inadequacy of current cycling infrastructure, while others talked about the important of local area planning and placemaking. Another large group advocated for solutions to homelessness, supervised consumption, climate change, affordability and food security. A smaller number of people talked about seniors and the economy.

The most eye opening speakers for me were two guys in wheelchairs, one of whom said that his new business is Accessibility consulting for Victoria. They both indicated that the City is deficient in terms of Accessibility considerations for the mobility impaired.

So what was actually said?

The majority of public comments were related to the strategic plan with its 13 strategic priorities – 8 of which I have written about in depth here on my site.

  1. Innovate and Lead
  2. Engage and Empower the Community
  3. Strive for Excellence in Planning and Land Use
  4. Build the Financial Capacity of the Organization
  5. Create Prosperity Through Economic Development
  6. Make Victoria More Affordable
  7. Facilitate Social Inclusion and Community Wellness
  8. Enhance and steward public spaces, green spaces and food systems
  9. Complete a Multi-Modal and Active Transportation Network
  10. Nurture Our Arts, Culture and Learning Capital
  11. Steward water systems and waste stream responsibly
  12. Plan for emergencies including climate change short and long term
  13. Demonstrate Regional Leadership

And when speaking to these priorities, many people just spoke of their praise for Council’s stated commitment to such priorities. Nobody really asked detailed questions about the financial plan and only one lady that I heard expressed her concern about the lack of alignment between the Financial Plan and Strategic Plan – something I’ve written frequently about.

From a strategic perspective, structuring the evening around the 13 priorities may have been an effective way of ensuring that each stated priority of Council’s was given proper air time and consideration. I suppose such a format would have necessitated subject specific presentations mind you and I guess staff and Mayor Helps may have argued that such a format would have cut into public input time.

To which I say, yes the efficiency of input sessions such as the one held last night may be of limited administrative value – depending on how it gets used, as well as what the original staff and Council expectations were for the night. Did they match us with public requests? If we look back to the specific motions passed by Council on Feb 23 regarding the public input to be gathered, these included:

  1. Approve transferring $500,000 of non-market change revenue to the Buildings and Infrastructure Reserve and direct staff to bring forward options for the use of the remainder once public consultation has been completed.
  2. Direct staff to bring forward options for the use of 2014 surplus once public consultation has been completed.
  3. Direct staff to bring forward options for funding supplementary budget requests once public consultation has been completed.

Which is to say that there will be staff reports coming forward for 1.5 hours of discussion on April 9th – which really doesn’t sound like much time for the public input driven debate and subsequent amendments to the financial plan as promised by Mayor Helps.

So why the public budget input anyways?

According to the original staff report  (see page 19) that accompanied the budget when it came out in early February, there were established expectations for public engagement and consultation regarding the budget and strategic plan:

Information will be provided in advance of consultation to ensure the community has the information and notice required to provide informed input.

The draft Financial Plan itself will be more accessible to the public through the use of visuals and plain language. Direct impacts of the budget and services provided will be highlighted to ensure the Plan resonates with community members and that the value the community receives for their tax dollars is evident.

Throughout February and March 2015, clear, accessible information on the budget will be shared to provide improved information about the budget, services and the budget process. Infographics will be used to help breakdown complex information into visuals that are more easily understandable and engaging. The current website information will be completely redeveloped to provide budget information in a way in which it resonates with the broad public.

Several new tools will be introduced in 2015 including an online budget toolkit explaining operating and capital budgets, where funds come from, how they are allocated and what the community receives for their collective investment. The budget toolkit will be available on the City’s website in February for community members to print off and use.

A video providing an overview the financial planning process, budget highlights and the services offered will also be created for the first time to broaden awareness and understanding around the budget.

An e-town hall will also be offered for the first time in 2015, providing multiple ways for the public to engage in the budget discussion, in both traditional and electronic mediums, and in real-time. Building on experiences in other municipalities, the e-town hall can make the budget process more accessible by removing barriers to participation and creating opportunities to draw new people into the budget discussions.

Upon conclusion of the consultation period, the process, all feedback and any subsequent changes, will be summarized and included in the financial plan itself to demonstrate the opportunities for public input and the public input received.

In the build up to the E-Townhall mind you the majority of publications and advertisements focused only on the $4.5 million that was available to spend, not on the budget as a whole.

So what about that $4.5 Million?

There are many things that bug me about the $4.5million that is supposedly available for public direction/guidance on how to invest it. The 1st is that, as I noted on Day 1 of the budget presentation is that public consultation on the 2015 budget was restricted to consultation on 2014 surplus funds – and where use of surplus funds is part of the legislated five year financial plan bylaw, it is only a fraction of the larger funds to be spent. We deserve more.

Sure there was that public survey (open until March 29th) about the budget, but it was structured in such a way that the first and easiest part was a quick opportunity to show preference for one priority over another, while the second half (which was really 90% of the survey) required in depth review of the budget as a whole. And of the 1,200 responses received to date, I’m curious to hear who made it all the way through. Only a fraction I bet, which is why I have previously written about my concerns with this tool.

My 2nd concern with the $4.5 Million dollars in 2014 surplus funds is that they do not currently appear anywhere within the 2015 draft financial plan or the 2015-19 Financial Plan bylaw that received first reading by Council on February 26. And without it being listed, we cannot be sure of its impact. For instance, once the $4.5 million gets added to to the document how will it affect the $213 million operating budget or $79.5 million capital budget? Will they stay the same or will they increase?

If the overall budget request and work plan increase, how can staff be expected to complete the works necessitated by the additional $4.5 million dollars of work being put upon them for 2015? Shouldn’t we expect that staff prepared their 2015 budget requests based on a full and complete work plan? If new tasks get added, won’t odd tasks need to fall off? And if new tasks get added and old tasks fall off, shouldn’t we assume that there will be surplus funds in 2016 due to work that wasn’t completed? If there is going to be 2016 surplus, why don’t we just keep our 2014 surplus in our reserves like we’re supposed to?

And if the overall operating budget and capital budget stay the same with the inclusion of the 2014 surplus, then how will that be explained? And anyway, why does the public get to decide if the City saves money? Isn’t it kinda like asking your kid if you should pay the mortgage each month or have takeout delivered each day?

Shouldn’t we the public be deciding instead on things like service levels, the kind of taxes we want to pay, and things like when to do large scale capital projects like the Johnson Street Bridge – which we did approve in a referendum. And then isn’t it the job of Council to ensure that money is being spent properly? Or is it because they can’t that we’re left with the task?

Hmm… Maybe its starting to make sense now.

In sum, all I want to see are the actual figures for the 2014 surplus in our 2015 budget, especially since that is all we get to consider. Sure I get that the 2014 Actuals (e.g., final tally of what was spent in 2014) were not done yet back in February when the budget first came out, but it is now late March and City staff have since had plenty of time to amend the public budget documents. But they haven’t and so we still don’t know what we’re looking at. Which is sad because the prior years surplus was clearly listed even in the 2014-18 Financial plan bylaw at first reading – and our mayor likes to talk about how bad last year’s budget was from a transparency perspective.

So this year’s should be better.

Am I asking too much?

 

 

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