A New Kind of City Budget Consultation

The words “budget” and “public consultation” may evoke suppressed memories of uncomfortable folding chairs, stale muffins and cold coffee. More worrisome, however, is the fact that for many, those words are synonymous with being talked at, not listened to.

This week, we are hosting two sessions of what we are calling Budget Speak, in addition to the city-run area consultations. These will be an opportunity for residents of the urban wards to identify their municipal priorities, communicate their views on how to fund them, better understand the city budget process and learn how to influence budget decisions over the long-term. With help from Citizens Academy, a local citizen engagement organization, we are designing the sessions to be interactive – a mixture of small group discussions, voting and exchanging ideas, preceded by a short presentation on the draft budget. Importantly, we are asking residents to come prepared for thoughtful deliberation.

The 2015 draft budget for the City of Ottawa was tabled by staff at the Feb. 4 meeting of council. Over the next four weeks, council will debate and discuss that budget in committee budget discussions and ultimately, at the meeting on March 11. We want to make sure that we are participating in these meetings with the benefit of having heard thoughtful feedback from our residents on a complex document. This feedback will not only inform our approaches to the upcoming budget discussions but also our individual positions on council priorities for this term, which will be debated in the spring of this year.

We hope to gain an understanding of what issues matter to our residents and what advice they have for us about trade-offs. Are residents happy with the way the draft budget allocates spending? Moreover, if there is a desire for more services or greater investments, how do residents want the city to pay for them? It is easy to ask that more money be spent in one or another area. It is harder to determine where money for such investments should come from. Re-allocation? Increased property taxes? Efficiency innovations? Reduced staffing? Higher user fees? We are keen to get residents’ feedback on some of the more difficult parts of budget making.

Budget Speak will differ from traditional public consultations by asking participants to identify not just their priorities, but to provide their views on how to achieve them. We want to encourage active, not just passive, participation. Perhaps unusually for elected officials, we plan to talk little and listen a lot. We are trying something new and hope that the lessons we learn from these sessions will be worth sharing with all of our council colleagues.

On the heels of a municipal election in which only 40 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots, we feel we have a responsibility to bring City Hall closer to our residents and ensure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation. While we cannot promise that every idea, priority and preoccupation voiced will be captured in the final budget, we are committed to bridging the gap between what residents want from their city and what it delivers.

Living in the urban core of Ottawa offers great possibility: eclectic main streets with their shops, restaurants and amenities; a full-range of transportation options; proximity to arts and cultural institutions and the ability to work, live and play close to home. But as we share our streets and sidewalks with increasing numbers of fellow residents and visitors, we need to ensure our wards are liveable and affordable. We also want to build an even better city core that all residents of Ottawa can enjoy and take pride in. We invite you to join us to help us achieve both of these shared objectives. And while we cannot do much about the chairs, hot coffee and fresh muffins will be on offer.

Tobi Nussbaum, Catherine McKenney, Jeff Leiper, Mathieu Fleury and David Chernushenko are the councillors for Rideau-Rockcliffe, Somerset, Kitchissippi, Rideau-Vanier and Capital wards respectively. Budget Speak is taking place Tuesday Feb. 10 at Tom Brown Arena, 141 Bayview Road, and Wednesday Feb. 11 at the St. Laurent Complex, 525 Cote St. Both events will run from 7-9 pm.  

Source: Ottawa Citizen