It is that wonderful time of year again when all the dreaming and planning, visioning and reflecting happens. And no, I’m not talking about the Christmas season or New Year’s resolutions, but of municipal budget and planning time! These are essential conversations as municipal budgets have a profound impact on our daily lives. From garbage collection to public transit to the safety of our neighbourhoods, budgets sit at the heart of community development.
A budget process has the capacity to identify and address health and social inequalities. It offers insight into strategies for dealing with population growth, land use and development changes, infrastructure deficits and political realities of the day. It drives the strategic direction for a community and is the most powerful tool that both residents and elected officials have in offering influence and change.
And what does a great budget process look like? It is a meaningful discussion to have, especially when statements like “economic crisis,” “tax cuts,” “red tape reduction” and “austerity measures” dominate our public conversation. As an electorate, we need to consider how these narratives begin to shape our response, both individually and collectively, to economic uncertainty and how they bias our response to those economic and social pressures.
There’s been a renewed interest by our elected officials to look at efficiencies at how they operate and to pilot a restructuring of our local governance systems, including our budget processes, to better reflect our collective urban identity. Perhaps it is time for us as the public to evaluate the effectiveness of the role that we play, as taxpayers, residents and business owners in the community.
One of the pillars of a sound budget process is public engagement. Our Council and Administration created several opportunities to offer insight into the budget priorities from residents, including online surveys, focus groups, a dedicated budget page on their website, live streaming meetings and discussions. The online engagement platform was easily accessible and required minimal time to complete, but only 197 residents participated. Our recent census showed a population of 66,082 residents, which means that less than 0.3 per cent of us participated. Do you trust those 197 people to speak for you?
Our municipal elected officials are best equipped to do their jobs when they are the most informed. No one likes taxes. But municipal budgets and the tax rates set as a result are perhaps the most democratic of all the forms of taxation we are forced to sustain. We are given the opportunity to provide direct feedback to draft versions of the budget over time, a chance that we are not afforded when other levels of government put forward their financial plans.
Don’t wait until the decision is made for you without your input. Council is reviewing the final draft of the budget at the regular Council meeting on Dec. 16 and certainly will accept input by email or phone up until then.
Margaret J. Wheatley said “there is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Your voice is a powerful thing; speak up while people are listening.
Lisa Holmes is a former Morinville mayor and councillor who lives in St. Albert.