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.