Searching for answers on participatory budgeting

BudgetPoliticians sometimes like to say that a poor turnout at budget meetings means taxpayers are happy with the way their money is being spent.

If that’s the case, TNRD residents must be really happy — nobody attended an open house Friday (Feb. 26, 2016) morning in the TNRD board room that was called to allow the public to come and ask questions about this year’s budget.

The provisional 2016 budget was approved by the board at the end of last year, and the final budget will come forward for approval in a few weeks. The provisional version is pretty much status quo compared to last year, though the final budget is seldom the same as the provisional one.

It would be nice indeed if regional district taxpayers looked upon the budget and decreed that it is good, but the truth is we’ve yet to find a way to effectively engage people about the annual financial plan.

The provisional budget is 141 pages of numbers — not the stuff of riveting bedtime reading. I know of no one who curls up in a chair on a winter’s day to relax with a government budget, on tenterhooks awaiting the bottom line.

Municipal governments at least have geography on their side. They can call public budget meetings in a central location and invite people to come. Regional districts are vast in size and include communities that are diverse in population, lifestyles and services.

The budget affects each one a little differently. To be effective, budget meetings would have to be held in each one, meaning staff and directors would have to commit to dozens of them. Even then, getting people to attend would be a challenge.

Aside from staff, board Vice Chair Ronaye Elliott and I were the only people in the room at Friday’s budget session. Despite the lack of public attendance, the time was well spent as we discussed the reasons why and what to do about it.

I think part of the answer lies in treating budget discussions not as a once a year thing but as a year-round exercise. Many community meetings are held throughout the year on a variety of issues, and if we used those as opportunities to inject even 15 minutes of talk about the budget, it would help people’s understanding.

Over time, as people became more aware of what the budget is all about and how it impacts them, they’d be able to become more engaged and to challenge the ways in which we spend their money. And that would make for more effective local government.

By the way, if you do want to take a look at the provisional budget, go to tnrd.ca, where you’ll find it under Departments-Administration-Finance-Financial Plans.

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