More user-friendly budget info will test engagement process
Administrators have proposed a 5.6 per cent tax hike to Jasper’s 2015 municipal budget, but when it comes to engaging the public on (arguably) the most important document that staff produces all year, expectations are, admittedly, low.
“Engagement is hard,” said Christine Nadon, communications manager for the municipality. “Unless it affects people directly, it’s hard to get people involved.” In 2013, MOJ consulted residents to find out how they wanted to be engaged. While on first blush the number of people who filled out the survey sounds encouraging (127), the number of those who did so of their own volition (26, estimated) points to the general difficulty of getting residents involved in municipal matters.
“The three hot topics for public engagement are money, kids and pets,” Nadon laughed.
But even those issues turn people off if the details get too gritty, as public consultation periods for previous proposed budgets demonstrate. This year’s public consultation sessions took place after The Jasper Local’s deadline, but if years past are any indication, there will be the same three gentlemen out to scrutinize the numbers, but few others. On the other hand, Nadon said, feedback is often most effectively garnered when residents have direct contact with municipal staff—the arena manager might hear about a leaky shower head, or the director of Community and Family Services will learn about childcare issues, for example. However, regarding the big decisions, such as whether a new operations manager should be hired so the town can better assess the lifespan of underground infrastructure, residents are typically hands-off, Nadon said.
“When it comes to big decisions, getting people involved is a real challenge.”
To make the idea of engagement on this year’s proposed budget less intimidating, boring or confusing, Nadon and finance director Natasha Malenchak have created a two page document highlighting where the major increases and decreases are. The paper also projects financial impacts to homeowners based on a home’s assessed value and outlines proposed utility rate changes. A detailed breakdown of the budget is also available. That document introduces the factors which influenced the proposed tax increases—such as the maintenance of municipal infrastructure—and goes into expenditures by department, reviewing the previous year’s spending and anticipating the big ticket items for 2016. It’s all part of the engagement process, Nadon said, a job that is never done.
“We’re trying to make the information more available and more manageable.”