The City’s Budget is something everyone has an opinion on, even those who don’t think of it in that way. When people say “the City should fix the sidewalks”, “do more about homelessness”, “get back to the basics” or “extend the Hume Pool season”, they are making comments about the budget. However, few discussions around services put budget at the centre of the item, except at the time of the year when the Council is asked to set a tax rate for the year ahead.
We have always asked people to comment on the budget, and every year there is a public report and Opportunity to be Heard on the final budget decisions (always framed around “next year’s tax increase”), but this is commonly after all of the heavy lifting of putting the budget together has happened, and the details of how we got there are not transparent enough for meaningful input.
The result of this, as I have previously joked, is that the community spends 11 months asking the City (and Council) to do more things, then spends a month telling us to not raise taxes to fund those things. Local governments really aren’t able to operate at deficits, so this form of feedback is not particularly useful for guiding policy. Part of that is because much of how the City’s budget works is arcane, and we need to change this.
One effort the City has undertaken in the last couple of years has been to try to make our budgeting process less arcane. Followers of this Blog (hi Mom!) know this is an interest of mine – I spend probably more time than is useful talking about taxes and busting some of the myths about how New Westminster taxes compare to our cohort. Past of that effort was my own research to better understand how our budget works so I can make more informed decisions about it. Thing is, Municipal finance is a complicated thing.
This was identified a few years ago as an area where the City should improve its Public Engagement efforts, and over the last couple of budget cycles we have been changing how we ask for input to the budget. Doing it sooner, adding an education component to guide more useful feedback, and trying to get a more diverse group of residents and stakeholders involved in the conversation.
We are at the beginning phases of the 2021 budget process. It starts around now and works towards a final budget being prepared in early May. This is obviously a different year than most, as both our revenues and our expenses were very different than we projected prior to the pandemic. Rectifying that in our 2021 budget, and understanding how to project forward with an uncertain pandemic recovery is going to be a challenge. However, we are still ramping up our public engagement on this topic. If you are the kind of person who read this far into this blog, you probably are the kind of person who has feedback to the City on the budget process.
Here is what you can do:
Go to the city’s Budget Engagement website. There you will see links to background information you may want. You will also find links to:
Most importantly, fill out the survey! There is a relatively quick survey to get your initial feedback about how the City should prioritize spending in the year ahead, and to see how the public feels about that services/costs balance that the City is always trying to manage.
As I mentioned above, the City is really trying to get a wider variety of feedback on this stuff. I know there are a few people out there who fill out every public engagement opportunity the City has (sit down, Brad!), but I am hoping those of you who are reluctant to spend 5 minutes on an online survey will take the time, or that you vocal types will, after filling it out yourself, pass this on to some other people in your household or social circle to add diversity to the voices we hear from. The survey is open until October 18th, so this is a great family Thanksgiving activity!