by Deron Johnston
It’s municipal budget time again. It’s the most important time of the year for residents to take notice of what the municipality is doing. The municipality must lay out its plans to show residents how the different departments will be spending our money in the coming year. This exercise happens every year, and it seems that North Grenville residents appear to be less and less engaged with each passing year. But I think it’s more about how the budget is presented, than a lack of engagement.
This year, the budget survey sent out by the municipality received 409 responses, compared to 638 responses from last year’s survey. On the surface, it appears like a 25% decrease in public response. However, when you look at what happened with the survey, it’s not that surprising. A paper copy of the survey was mailed out to homes in North Grenville, but apparently not to all of them. Some residents say that they never received them. Even if you received one in the mail, there were no instructions on what to do with it once you had filled it out. On the positive side, the number of questions about the budget submitted by residents using email was similar to last year.
At the first budget meeting this year on January 25, there were only five people in attendance, according to a witness. At the second budget meeting on February 1, there were only approximately ten people in attendance, with three being local media and another two representing the library. For the first meeting, the budget was only released 24 hours beforehand. It boggles the mind how someone is expected to read the budget (all 130 pages), absorb all of that information, and then try to formulate thoughtful questions, all within 24 hours.
Many people have busy lives, so even if someone was very engaged, they would find it very challenging to be prepared to ask questions about the whole budget after only a week. Not to mention that the second meeting was held at 3:00 pm on a weekday, thereby eliminating over 60% of working residents who work outside of the municipality from being able to attend.
After asking several people about whether they had looked at the municipal budget, the responses have been varied: “No, because it would take too much time, there’s too much information to go through“, or “No, because I could never stand up in front of everyone to ask a question”. “No, but it doesn’t matter, because council wouldn’t listen to people’s concerns anyway”.
It’s hard not to agree with at least the last statement. Very few people are comfortable standing up in front of council and staff to request some kind of change in the budget, or ask a question. It can be a very intimidating environment. Even when someone does so, rarely does anything change. In this way, I think that members of council should show a lot more support for residents who want to be a part of the budget process and should advocate on behalf of residents for the changes that people want, rather than leave the resident alone to try and justify what they want to municipal staff.
For next year’s budget, why not release the budget and then discuss the budget in stages, rather than all at once? Why not have a different department host a budget meeting each week? This way, it would give people time to read and absorb the budget for only one department at a time, rather than the whole thing at once. For example, the first meeting could be on the budget for bylaw and emergency services. Then have a final budget meeting for the whole budget, in case someone missed one of the departmental meetings. I would also suggest not starting budget meetings the day after the budget is released. Wait at least a week, to give people time to prepare.
For questions from the public at budget time, why not have residents send the questions directly to council and have councillors read the questions at meetings? For people who are unable to make it to budget meetings, why not have COGECO broadcast or record each budget meeting just like Committee of the Whole and Council meetings? Hopefully, next year’s budget meetings will be better attended, with more people engaged in the budget process. After all, it’ll be an election year next year, so people might be paying a lot closer attention. Or maybe the municipality should simply serve beer and wine at budget meetings. I’m quite certain that would definitely boost attendance.