Victoria Is Part of a Growing Movement to Put Spending Decisions in Hands of Taxpayers

participatory-budgeting1

Date: Tuesday, January 10, 2017
For Immediate Release

VICTORIA, BC – Victoria’s first participatory budgeting process kicks-off Thursday with an opportunity for residents to learn more about participatory budgeting and begin to design a process where the community decides how to spend $60,000 in Victoria.

 PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING KICK OFF

Thursday, January 12, 2017
5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Foyer of the Atrium Building at 800 Yates Street

The launch event will be facilitated by the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit agency from New York that works to empower people to decide together how to spend public money. They have supported participatory processes across North America through which over $200 million dollars have been allocated. Shari Davis, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Participatory Budgeting Project, will lead the Thursday session. During her time at the City of Boston, Shari launched Youth Lead the Change, the first youth participatory budgeting process in the US.

Participatory budgeting, commonly known as PB, pushes traditional public engagement and traditional budgeting methods to the limit by empowering citizens to design a decision-making process and choose how the funds are spent. The municipality becomes the facilitator of the community and supports the citizen efforts, implementing what the community decides they want for the community. This is the first participatory process led by a municipality on the South Island, and one of the first in BC.

Responsive to citizen needs for greater involvement in government decision-making, participatory budgeting was originally introduced in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and is now common across the globe in varying forms and deliberative processes. In North America, cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, Toronto, Guelph, and closer to home, Tofino, have introduced participatory components to their annual municipal budgets. In terms of financial allocations in other cities, they range from nominal amounts in small centres, to millions of dollars in large cities such as Chicago and New York. Canadian examples include Toronto ($450,000), Guelph ($125,000) and Tofino ($20,000).

The $60,000 earmarked in Victoria applies to the entire community rather than one specific neighbourhood. It is an important principle of participatory budgeting to reach all demographics and neighbourhoods in the community. Accordingly, efforts are being made to reach neighbourhoods and groups not typically active in the budget process (e.g. youth, seniors, new residents, new immigrants).

Everyone is invited to participate. It’s important there is participation and views from groups across the city. The event will also be of interest to government, school, and community organizations looking to introduce participatory budgeting processes.

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For More Information:

Mayor Lisa Helps 250.661.2708

Shari Davis, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Participatory Budgeting Project, is available for interviews January 11 and January 12.  Interviews can be scheduled by calling 250.661.0085

City Plan. City Budget. We Need YOUR Input!

It’s strategic plan time! It’s budget time! And we need your input. Mayor and Council have been working hard for the past two months to put together a bold and innovative strategic plan that will shape the direction we all go together for the next four years. The plan is not a nice wish list. It’s a path forward, with clear, measurable actions and outcomes.

Create Prosperity Through Economic Development. Make Victoria More Affordable. Engage and Empower the Public. Nurture our Arts, Culture and Learning Capital. These are just four of the 13 bold, forward-looking objectives we are aiming to achieve over the next four years to make Victoria into a leading-edge 21st century city.

To make sure we’re heading in the right direction, and spending your money in a way that will get us there, we need your input. Please take the time! If you’ve only got a little bit of time you can fill out the short survey and scratch the surface. If you’ve got more time, take a deep dive.

And, if you like good old-fashioned democracy, like I do, join us for a townhall meeting on the strategic plan and budget, Monday March 23rd 7pm at City Hall. We’re doing things differently this year and we need your help to make it a success. If you can’t make it in person on the 23rd, you can email, tweet or even phone us with your questions and comments and we’ll make sure they become part of the discussion that night.

The goal Council hopes to reach with this budget and this strategic plan is that “Victoria is a leading edge capital city that embraces the future and builds on the past, where human needs and the environment are priorities, where the community feels valued, heard and understood and where City Hall is trusted. Victoria is a city that is livable, affordable, prosperous and vibrant, where we all work in partnership to support opportunities and get things done.”

Together with you, we can make this happen. We look forward to building the city, with you.

What is a Strategic Plan and How Do We Make One?

A strategic plan is not a wish list or a to do list. It’s not a simple list of priorities. It’s not a list of tactics or actions. A strategic plan is a ‘living document’ set by a board of directors – in this case Council – to guide the strategic focus of the organization for a set period of time.

A strategic plan allows us, as the people you’ve elected to govern the City, to be proactive, future-focused, and action-ready. We start by setting a high-level strategic goal, deciding the strategic objectives we need to pursue to achieve that goal, and then determining high-level actions that we direct our staff to implement in order to achieve these objectives.

If this sounds a bit ungrounded right now, not to worry. As we determine the goal, objectives and actions we’ll share them with you before adopting the plan. We want to make sure we’re creating the kind of city you elected us to and doing it in such a way that is inclusive, bold and forward-looking.

In our last term of office, it took Mayor and Council 11 months to complete a strategic planning process. This meant that staff went nearly a year without direction from Council as to what our strategic focus and priorities would be for the term. This time, we’ve committed to completing our Strategic Plan within the first quarter of 2015. This way we can give clear direction to, and empower, our staff as early in the term as possible so we’re not wasting time.

At the beginning of the strategic planning process, I presented the following report and recommendation to Council. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­In the interests of transparency and inclusiveness, even though the first two meetings were held in closed session, Council chose to rise and report on the entire report and strategic planning agenda. I share it here in its entirety. Feel free to join us in person at City Hall or online here as we set to work creating a high-level strategic plan for our four year term.

Governance and Priorities Report, January 26th 2015
Recommendation
That Council adopt the following strategic planning process.

Summary
The objective of the strategic planning process is to end up with a concrete strategic plan that will guide the decisions of Council and the work of staff for the next four years. Once in place, Council will review the plan on a regular basis and update it according to emerging priorities and the will of Council.

In order to have a plan with concrete outcomes that reflects the will of council and the aspirations of the public, we need to do three things. First, we need everyone on council to feel good about the strategic planning process and to feel like there is room for everyone’s ideas to be considered. Second, we need to focus the discussion on concrete problems and concrete solutions. Third, we need to share the plan with the public and ask for high-level input before we adopt it.

Monday January 26th 9:00-3:00
In camera, Council, City Manager, Director Citizen Engagement and Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning Warm-Up with Tracey Lorenson
A facilitated session with Tracey Lorenson to agree on some high level principles for working together, develop a sense of what a strategic plan is and what we want it to do, and begin to discuss high-level goals.

Objectives:
a.) Stretch our ‘working together’ muscles
b.) Discuss what each person would like to get out of the strategic planning process and out of the experience of working together for the next four years
c.) Agree on some basic principles and values for working together
d.) Begin to identify themes and one high level goal that the plan can aim to achieve

Wednesday January 28th 9:00am-1:00pm
In camera, Council, City Manager, Director Citizen Engagement and Strategic Planning

Section 1 Where We Are and Where We’re Going
A facilitated discussion to flesh out the problems we’d like to solve and some agreement on the desired reality we’d like to get to.

Objective:
Come to agreement about what is wrong and where we would like to take the City, at a very high level (agree on a shared goal) in the next four years.

Section 1 – Where We Are and Where We’re Going

  1. Start by listing the top ten things that we think are wrong with the city.
  2. Distil everything that is wrong into one sentence.
  3. If our answer to number two is the current reality, then, in one sentence, what is our desired reality?

Monday February  2nd  9am–12 pm
Public

Sections 2 and 3 Big Dreams and Reality Check and Learning From Elsewhere
A facilitated discussion led to flesh out everyone’s big ideas, blue sky scenarios, as well as small things we’d like to see. This is also a structured opportunity for people to bring ideas they’re seen work well in other places.

Objectives:
a.) Begin to identify some of the really big things we’d like to accomplish in the next four years as well as some of the smaller, easier wins. These will tie into the final day of planning.

b.) Share ideas and success stories from other places and asses which, if any we might like to pilot in Victoria. These will tie into the final day of planning. 

Section 2 – Big Dreams and Reality Check

  1. If the City of Victoria had all the time and all the resources in the world what would we do? (Dream big!)
  2. If the City had little time and few resources, what would we do?

Section 3 – Learning From Elsewhere

  1. What cities in the world do you think Victoria has something to learn from?
  2. What are some concrete things we can learn from these cities?

Tuesday February 3rd 9am – 3pm
Public 

Section 4 Passions, Outcomes and Concrete Actions (Part 1)

A facilitated discussion to bring everything together into high-level concrete outcomes and actions. This will loop back to where we started in order to make sure that what the things we said were ‘wrong’ in Question 1 Section 1 are addressed by the outcomes and actions we agree to. This will be the meatiest session and this is where we will actually begin to make decisions.

Objectives:
a.) Learn more about what each Councillor is interested in working on

b.) Determine the high-level plan ‘headings’ or ‘priorities’
b.) Begin to settle on high level outcomes (deliverables) and actions 

Section 4 – Passions, Concrete Outcomes and Actions

  1. What are you passionate about working on?
  2. Now, get concrete about your passions! At the end of four years, we will have achieved these ten concrete outcomes:
    1. 
    2.
    etc.
  3. List the actions we think the City can take to achieve these outcomes.

Thursday February 5th 12pm – 4pm
Public

Section 4 Passions, Outcomes and Concrete Actions (Part 2)
A facilitated discussion to bring everything together into high-level concrete outcomes and actions. This will loop back to where we started in order to make sure that what the things we said were ‘wrong’ in Question 1 Section 1 are addressed by the outcomes and actions we agree to. This will be the meatiest session and this is where we will actually begin to make decisions.

Objectives:
a.) To clean up and tie up our work from the previous four sessions
b.) To make decisions on the high-level plan ‘headings’ or ‘priorities’
c.) To make decisions on the high level outcomes (deliverables) and actions  
d.) To direct staff to produce a draft strategic plan for input from Council and the public

Property Taxes 101

Property taxes have gone up 26% over the last six years. Good tax policy and living within our means is needed to create an affordable city for Victoria’s residents and businesses alike. I have a plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better for the next four years. I also have thoughts on the impact that freezing the property tax ‘mill rate’ for four years would have – both on commercial property owners and on the fiscal management of City Hall.

Before I share my plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, and look more closely at the impact of freezing the property tax mill rate, here’s a property tax primer. What is the mill rate anyways?

Property Taxes 101
The City divides property owners into six classes. 
Residential and business make up the vast majority of property. To create its annual budget, the City multiplies the assessed value (which is produced independently by BC Assessment every January) by a ‘mill rate’ for each class of property. The ‘mill rate’ is set independently by the City to produce the amount of revenue required for the City’s operations.

The City runs a surplus annually. Unlike other levels of government, municipalities are not allowed to run deficits. The surplus varies from year to year and is transferred to the City’s infrastructure reserve fund at the end of the year. This reserve fund is important to the City’s long-term sustainability. The City uses its reserves for important infrastructure like water and sewer pipes, parks, roads and greenways. With reduced or no surpluses in the annual budget, infrastructure reserves would shrink. This would compromise the City’s ability to care for its infrastructure for the long term.

Taxes collected make up roughly 55% of the City’s annual budgeted revenues. User fees for water, sewer and garbage are other ways the city earns revenue to provide services.

New tax revenue from new growth is based on re-assessments of properties on which there is construction – new buildings and building improvements. New tax revenue has decreased significantly in the last five years. The last two years are dire:

2009:  $1,958,701
2010:  $1,878,822
2011:  $1,659,973
2012:  $328,105
2013:  $108,640

These numbers show what I hear a lot – that it’s hard and slow to get through the processes at City Hall to build or improve a building in Victoria.

My Plan
Fix City Hall so it works
 and so that in can play a role in creating a beautiful, vibrant city and new tax revenue. Foster and support new, sensitive, beautiful buildings and enterprises in Victoria by creating an Economic Development Office (start up funding to come through the City’s Economic Development Reserve Fund). Support small business and reduce downtown retail and commercial vacancies through the creation of an Enterprise Facilitator position in the Economic Development Office. More details 
here.

Overhaul City Hall and create an innovative, creative work culture where front-line staff are empowered to innovate and look for cost savings. Working with The Pacific Institute, the City of Saskatoon did this between 2004 and 2009. In 2009, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses named Saskatoon the most business friendly city in Canada. And, between 2004 and 2009 Saskatoon saved $56 million dollars. Not by cutting and slashing services, but by working smarter and encouraging cooperation and innovation throughout the organization. And yes, it’s a unionized workplace, just like the City of Victoria.

With City Hall working and new revenue from new development coming in and with innovation, creativity and cost-savings realized, I will work with Council and city management to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better.

Freezing the Mill Rate is Not Freezing Taxes
Freezing the mill rate means that if the assessed value of properties goes up, taxes will go up. If the assessed value of property goes down, taxes will go down. In both cases, control of city finances is surrendered to the vagaries of the market. Property owners could find themselves paying dramatically more, or the City’s budget might have a hole blown in it. And, worst of all, we wouldn’t know it until the year in question. Remember, the City only gets the assessment information in January of the budget year. This is no way to govern an organization that is run with public dollars.

Finally, freezing the mill rate would prevent the City from continuing to re-balance between residential and business taxes. In 2010, the business mill rate was 3.59 to 1 versus the residential mill rate. Today it is 3.18 to 1. We’ve made a bit of progress in the past few years and I will keep working on this for the next four.

Sensible Tax Policy
What I’m hearing over and over again is that Victorians want to live in a place they can afford. And they want a city government that takes into consideration their ability to pay as it sets its budget and tax rate each year and decides how to spend their money.

Public Art and the Johnson Street Bridge

I stopped in to see John the singing grocer, as he’s affectionately known, in Cook Street Village today. The first words that crossed his lips, “So, what do you think of the public art proposed for the Johnson Street bridge?” I asked him his thoughts. He said that good welcoming landscaping could take the place of art. We should create a place for people to be and to mill about.

Here’s the context for his question: Last Thursday Council, sitting as Governance and Priorities Committee received an update on the Johnson Street Bridge project. The good news is that at this early stage in the game, the project appears to be on time and on budget. The staff report laid out a revised budget ($300,000 more added to the contingency budget because of savings found through design optimization) and timeline.

After thanking staff for their work, we spent the next hour deliberating about whether to spend $250,000 (already approved as part of the project budget) on public art to accompany the bridge. A motion was put forward to spend the money. Then an amendment was made to reduce the amount to $100,000. Then the majority of Council moved to postpone consideration of the decision until the new year in order to have more information about the site and landscape plans for the approaches to the bridge. I was in the minority who thought we should make a decision that day and move on.

On the evening news, I said that I’m all for public art, but how about we wait until the end of the project and see if we do come in under budget. If yes, then maybe we could consider adding an element of art to public space near the bridge. To me that’s a practical approach. I also feel, as the Times Colonist reported, that the bridge itself is a piece of art. And, my final thought is that we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on landscaping, lighting, the creation of public plaza spaces for people to gather. Art is great and it plays a hugely importantly role in shaping public spaces. But it is also people that make public spaces come alive. And, as one CFAX caller said, “The art is our harbour; it is a moving picture.” 

My take away from the media attention around this issue and the public response is that there’s a tension between two of Council’s key responsibilities. We are called to be stewards of the City’s public spaces and stewards of the public purse. Standard practice in North America seems to be that one per cent of large public infrastructure projects is spent on art to accompany the project. I understand this. But in the case of the Johnson Street Bridge, which has already risen from an original $77 million budget to $92.8 million, I favour a wait and see approach. It would be heartbreaking to commit $250,000 to public art at this point and then, because of rising steel costs, unanticipated archaeological delays, etc, see the bridge come in over budget. It may seem that $250,000 is ‘nothing’ in the face of a $92.8 million project. But it’s not nothing to me. It’s money entrusted to us by people through their property taxes. And I want to spend that money with care.

Permissive Tax Exemption Policy

This Thursday May 23rd, Victoria City Council will be making a decision with regard to permissive tax exemptions. Here’s my take. Please feel free to share.

In 2004 Council created a policy that all new applications for permissive tax exemptions that provided regional services would a get 50% permissive tax exemption; all regional organizations that already had permissive tax status at the time were grandfathered in at 100%. The proposal on the table now is to move current grandfathered organizations deemed regional in nature to 50% exempt status over the next 10 years. I think this is a good idea.

Why?

First of all, we must confront reality and realize that while the organizations in question provide amazing services to Victoria and the region, so do the very large number of other charities and non-profits that don’t own property and therefore don’t have the ability to benefit at all from the City’s tax exemption policy. In other words, there is already an unequal playing field. Property-owning non-profits and charities benefit disproportionately over those that haven’t had the ability/fortune/luck to have purchased properties or had them donated. It makes sense to me to bring all organizations which receive property tax exemptions in line with Council’s 2004 policy.

Second of all, I work in the sector. I founded and run a small non-profit society which is just moving out of start-up mode and has only a small budget and three part-time staff. We don’t own property but we do have our space donated to us by a generous landlord. Market rent at Community Micro Lending’s Gathering Place on Douglas St is $1800 a month, that’s $21,600 a year. If our landlord decided he needed the rental income and asked to charge us I would say, “Thank you very much for your generosity these past three years.” And I would find a way to make that space work, or find another, team up with another organization, etc. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think the non-profit sector needs to become more enterprising, more resilient, not primarily dependent on grants and exemptions but more creative and more collaborative.

My vote on Thursday will reflect this perspective. And my vote has nothing to do with how much I value the goods and services provided by the grandfathered properties. I do value them, very much. And I appreciate the richness they add to the social fabric of our city and region.

Citizens’ Budget Workshops – Report Out

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Preliminary Budget Feedback from Residents (PDF)
In the election a year ago, citizens were concerned about their taxes and the escalating costs of living in Victoria. As a new councilor, I learned that the City has many built-in costs that escalate year after year. Bringing these under control will need continuous hard work at City Hall and engagement with residents and businesses about priorities.

To start this off, in April I introduced a motion to move to a three-year budget cycle, with a maximum increase of 3.25% per year, instead of the 4+% that had been proposed by staff. Council unanimously passed this motion, which also included a third clause re: engaging the public on the budget. 

As the months passed, citizens became more concerned as they saw: the Johnson Street Bridge price continue to escalate; the projected costs of a regional sewage treatment facility; the release of the Public Bodies report which showed the number of City staff paid more than $100K and $150K; and FOI requests that revealed the fact that City properties would require over $34 million in upgrades to be seismically sound.

Against this backdrop, between July and October, I held five community workshops in James Bay, Fernwood, Fairfield and Vic West in which a total of 185 people participated. The purpose was to gain citizen input at the beginning of the City’s budget process, so that this could feed into decisions I’d be making at the Council table in the fall. There was an average attendance of 35-40 at people each gathering. And it was an inspiring and informative process, as neighbours talked with neighbours and shared ideas.

I posted the detailed input on my website and I sent it to my fellow councilors as well to help inform the budget discussions we had in the fall. As we begin a City-led round of budget engagement sessions in January, I felt it would be worthwhile summarizing the detailed results and sharing them with a wider public. The link at the top of this post contains both the summary and the detailed results. Note that this summary reflects both the range of ideas and the importance that the citizens assigned to them. 

Taking the Numbers to the People

 

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in July, 106 people came out to James Bay New Horizons Community Centre to share their ideas with each other and with me about how the City of Victoria can spend less in the coming years while still providing quality services to its citizens and businesses.

The gathering was the first of many public budget workshops I’ll be holding over the coming months to seek ideas for the City’s 2013-15 budget. And the best thing is, these workshops are citizen-driven and organized. And they’re fun. I show up with $196 of Monopoly money to represent the $196 million that is the City’s current budget. I present some basic information and then listen as people set to work with their neighbours to find savings. Spurred on by the turnout in James Bay, Ken Roueche of Fairfield pulled together a committee, organized a workshop (Wednesday August 29, 7-9pm, Garry Oak Room on Thurlow St) and even got Bubby Roses Bakery to donate baked goods for the event.

Why are citizens so eager to comment on the City’s budget? As a follow up to Councillor Marianne Alto’s work to keep the property tax lift to 3.25% in 2012, on April 19th, I brought a motion to the Council table that passed unanimously. This motion did three important things. First, the motion moved the City to a three-year budgeting cycle. In the past, every July Council gave direction to staff about what the property tax rate should be for the following year. Staff went away and did some work, and in December, budget deliberations begin. It was only in March of this year that Council passed the 2012 budget. This seemed odd to me, that we’d be a quarter of a way through the year with no approved budget. So now, it’s the summer and Council and staff are already working on the 2013-15 budget.

This is made possible by the second part of the April 19th motion which is, to set the property tax rate for the next three years and to freeze the property tax lift to no more than 3.25% per year. This is spurring citizens to action. A property tax freeze of 3.25% means that the City will have to spend at least $6 million less than planned over the next three years. It’s this key question that I want to hear from people on: Where should the City make cuts and at the same time continue to provide quality services.

The third part of the motion is that the City undertake some kind of public engagement process on the 2013-15 budget so that citizens and businesses – who pay for the City’s services through their taxes – have a say in how their monies are spent. So the City will have some form of budget workshops later this fall with some different cost-saving scenarios presented for comment. But I wanted to get a head start and begin to gather ideas early so these ideas could feed into the City-run process. I look forward to seeing you at an upcoming workshop. If you’d like to host one in your neighbourhood, please email me at lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca.