There is one group of citizens who think the city has it right; do the fireman agree ?

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  February 4, 2012  – Most of the usual suspects were on hand for one of the public reviews of the 2012 city budget, along with city staff who were ready to explain the finer points of what looks like is going to be about 3.4% tax increase over last year`s which was less than 1%.

Citizens gathering in a public session to review a proposed city budget with Council members on hand to answer questions and staff on hand to delve into the details. They weren't doing that in Syria last Thursday night.

The public event, held at the Burlington Art Centre drew about 30 citizens who went through the workbook the city had provided.  The evening started with an overview from Acting Treasurer Joan Ford after which staff joined each table to go through the well laid out workbook that for those attending , raised questions to consider.

We learned an interesting little bit about the technology the city uses to get the sense of what people in a meeting think about an issue.  The city has a couple of dozen little key pads that look a bit like a remote but are quite a bit smaller.  A question will pop up on a screen and people in the room key in the number that fits their answer to the question – less than two seconds later the results appear on a screen.

General Manager Budgets and Corporate Services, Kim Phillips brought the tool to the meeting – it was kind of neat to see what people in the room thought about a specific issue – you had the answer in seconds.  This sort of thing could and perhaps should be used at larger meetings – say the Heritage Workshops where views are usually very mixed it would help to see what people were thinking.  It was very “real time” and useful.

Here we are at the nitty gritty stage. Citizens have talked through their concerns and the politicians now join them for a more focused conversation. This table had executive level firemen taking part. They want the new station fully manned and they'd like to see funds set aside for the upgrading of the station on Plains Road as well. Lots of firemen on the province's Sunshine list as well. That's the list of those who get paid more than $100,000 annually.

Once a group has gone through the workbook the situation shifts and the politicians who were in the room join the table to discuss the major concern each group had.  This particular public session saw a group from the fire department taking part – we’ve not seen specific stakeholder groups appear at these sessions in the past.  The fire department has clearly decided that they need to make their point in quieter community based sessions.

It was interesting to watch Councillors Mead Ward and Craven along with the Mayor join the table and hear what the group had to say.

The evening ended with each table giving the audience a sense of their take on the budget.  At this session the sense was that the city was on the right track ad that spending was seen as appropriate.  One person thought some of the information given could have been put in a better context and made part of a large picture – good point.

While the workbook is some 20 pages, it covers the points city staff wanted to hear discussed and while there was no sense that anything was being hidden, public input on the questions that were asked, might have been helpful.

Time for these public sessions is limited so the city set out two service choices and asked participants to respond. They were told that the city planned on spending $80.71 on fire protection; $75.74 on capital spending, $66.53 on Roads and Parks Maintenance; $39.42 on Local Boards and committees (Library, Performing Arts Centre, the Economic Development Corporation;  $32.92 on Parks and Recreation services and $28.60 on transit services.

The figures given are for every $100,000 of urban residential assessment – so if your house is assessed at $300,000 then you would multiply the number given by three.

The graph shows what tax rates have been historically. The city portion of the total tax bill has not always been in sync with what the Region and Schools Board ask for. Wide swings during the Jackson administration.

The participants were asked if they would maintain the amount budgeted for 2012; if they would enhance the amount (increase) or reduce the amount budgeted.  Staff were on hand to delve into some of the detail in each of the spending categories.  What would you have done with each of those categories?  If you want to share your view, General Manager Kim Phillips would love to hear from you – she can be reached by email at phillipsk@Burlington.ca

A closer look at the proposed 2012 city budget called for some thinking and some animated discussion at the Burlington Art Centre session last week.

The participants were asked if they would support or not support reducing the frequency of mowing the grass under the Hydro rights of way from five times a year to four times and save $6000.00 .  Or if they would support or not support reducing the school crossing guard coverage during lunch hours at under utilized crossings?  I suspect the parents located near those crossings would like some say on this one – the specific crossings weren’t set out in the workbook – but if you`re concerned  – ask your ward councillor.

There are 15 hanging baskets on Lakeshore Road between Maple and Locust – are they worth the $4000.00 the city spends to put them up and maintain them every year?  Tell your Council member if you don`t think that is money well spent.

Running a city is a complex business and keeping everyone happy is no simple matter.  A lot of people disdain politics – but like it or not – it is the glue that keeps the place together.

The previous session held elsewhere in the community had just five people in the audience and while that is disappointing – there is a very important point being made by the city.  They have, each year, gone out into the community with well-prepared material and organized the event so that everyone had an opportunity to talk and make their views known.  The attendance was disappointing but people in the city know that they can make their views known – so when the budget is approved – let`s not hear a lot of carping about the public having no input.  There are additional public sessions scheduled.  If you’ve got a beef – there is a chance for you to get your two cents worth on the table.

Chamber of Commerce Chair Tamer Fahmi listens in and considers a possible poker game with the assistant treasurer.

The sessions are kind of fun.  One table left the sense they were prepared to get a small game of poker going – heck they were talking about the city budget so why not have some fun.  That the deputy city treasurer along with the President of the Chamber of Commerce was at the table shouldn’t send out any alarm signals – they both looked like quarter a hand players to me.

Small, community based information sessions are just part of the public process.  The budget, both the Capital budget, which is a longer term document and the Current budget – which sets out what is going to be spent in the current year, get discussed at length during the Budget and Corporate Services committee meetings, where any citizen can delegate and be given ten minutes to make their point.  If you’re really hot and bothered about an issue – you can delegate at the Council meeting, where the budget is made official.  You`re expected to have new information if you delegate at Committee and delegate again at Council – and you get just five minutes at a Council meeting.

If you’ve nothing new to say at a Council meeting you get met by stone cold silence from the seven members of city council, who thank you for your delegation and dismiss you – it can be a  humbling experience, and it happens more often than it should.  So if you chooses to delegate – be well prepared with facts and figures.

City council had asked staff to prepare a budget with a tax increase that ranged between 2% and 3.5% – they’ve produced a document that came in at 3.4%.  Council at the Committee stage can and should squeeze this back to 2% and ensure that the needed funds for the road maintenance is in place.

The breakdown of what the city plans to commit itself to for the re-development of the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital - when and if it ever gets re-built. The city is looking at a number of ways to collect these amounts. A straight tax levy every year or possibly a longer term funding that would spread the cost over several generations.

There was a very interesting and innovative proposal put forward by Councillor Taylor for a debenture offering that citizens could subscribe to as a way to raise the funds needed to pay for any re-development that gets done on the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital.  The proposal would have given citizens a risk free investment opportunity and also have spread out the re-development costs over a longer time frame.  If there is ever a re-developed hospital in Burlington –and it is far from certain that there ever will be one – the cost can and should be spread out over several generations.  Giving people a better financial return than a savings account wouldn’t hurt either.

 

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