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Budget 2020: Public Feedback

One of my biggest focuses on Council has been increasing opportunities for public engagement. As Council heads into deliberations for Budget 2020, I’ve been excited to see new efforts to involve residents.

City administration has prepared a report with what it has heard about the budget. You can read it here.

Here are the observations I’ve made from reading this report:

  • For respondents, good services are a higher priority than lowering taxes

  • Most City services are providing satisfactory results

  • People need to be shown better value for their tax dollars

  • Roads and public safety should be top priorities

  • Snow removal needs attention

  • Policing needs continued attention

Following is more information about how people were invited to engage in the budget process and expanded explanations about the take-aways I see from their responses.


ENGAGEMENT PROCESS

There were three opportunities provided for people to give their feedback on the budget:

  • The City has a new engagement website. It has a section dedicated to Budget 2020 which has received 1146 visitors so far. Through this budget section, there was a survey available for residents to take.

  • The engagement website has also been used to conduct surveys about services relating to Snow & Ice Control, Parks, and Public Transit.

  • The City hosted an in-person engagement session at the Eastlink Centre. City Council, the City’s Corporate Leadership Team, and 14 City departments were on site to share information, answer questions, and hear ideas about City services. Participants were also invited to give written feedback.

I'm proud of the work our staff is doing to create public engagement. I look forward to seeing expanded and improved feedback opportunities next year.

In the meantime, I’m giving lots of consideration to what was heard this year. It will have a big influence on me as I approach budget deliberations.

Following are some of the observations I have made while reading the What We Heard report. All graphs are taken from it.


FOR RESPONDENTS, GOOD SERVICES ARE A HIGHER PRIORITY THAN LOWERING TAXES

Respondents were asked to pick a statement that they feel best aligns with their views when the City creates its budget.

This is how they answered:

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I expected a majority of respondents to prioritize lowering taxes above all else. Seeing a majority prioritize maintaining or increasing services surprised me.

I suspect there are some Councillors approaching budget deliberations with a priority to reduce taxes, even if that requires service reductions. Personally, I’ve been open to reducing some services if that meant we could keep any tax deductions below inflationary levels. Seeing resident responses to this question is making me revisit my priorities in regards to taxes and service levels.

Something I want to note: some respondents asked why there wasn’t an option to pick “increase services and lower taxes.” I get why people want this. But I don’t see how having this option available would’ve helped Council made decisions.

If there are opportunities to both increase services while reducing taxes: of course Council will move on those. In fact, we did that last year by lowering residential taxes by 4.1% while also increasing many services, including Road Rehabilitation and RCMP. I don’t need a survey to tell me that, where opportunity exists to lower taxes without also lowering services, the community wants to see that. Moving on opportunities like that is an easy decision.

What is a hard decision: what should Council do when it has already found all possible efficiencies it can find in this budget? At that point, Council has some very hard decisions to make about whether it looks for further savings through service reduction or if it increases key services, even if that has a tax impact. It is those hard decisions that this question and its response options was created to inform.

Worth highlighting: you can click here for more information about how the City is working to control expenses. Work is underway to make City services more efficient. The City has also adopted Priority Based Budgeting so that, if Council does decide to reduce some services, it can target the ones that have the least importance in our community.


MOST CITY SERVICES ARE RETURNING SATISFACTORY RESULTS

Survey participants were asked how they felt about a variety of City services. For most services, there were more “Satisfied” or “Very Satisfied” respondents than “Dissatisfied” or “Very Dissatisfied” respondents.

Some observations worth noting:

Arts, culture, and recreation facilities received the highest levels of satisfaction. This indicates that Council should be cautious when considering capital and increased operational funding for these facilities: that may be unnecessary if residents are already satisfied. But residents appreciating these facilities also carries interesting implications as Council considers possible funding reductions. On one hand, perhaps these facilities should be targeted for reductions over services residents are already less satisfied with. On the other hand, if reducing funding to these facilities causes residents to lose satisfaction in their favourite City services, that could be more impactful than reductions elsewhere. Arts, culture, and recreation facility funding needs to be approached carefully.

Homeless Initiatives and Family and Community Support Services were the only two service areas that had more dissatisfied respondents than satisfied respondents. This survey was conducted in the middle of the City managing a Temporary Transition Site for those experiencing homelessness. The timing of this survey may have created more dissatisfaction than normal in these service areas. Still, this dissatisfaction aligns with what I’ve informally heard in the community: residents want us to do more to address homelessness and to care for various demographics of vulnerable people. These aren’t areas that should be targeted for funding reductions. In fact, Council should be considering increasing resources for these services.

Here is a graph showing respondents’ satisfaction with City services:

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I hope that this same question gets asked next year. It would be very interesting to see how respondent’s satisfaction with various services changes overtime. That could create valuable insight into how increasing or decreasing funding improves or degrades services.


PEOPLE NEED TO BE SHOWN BETTER VALUE FOR THEIR TAX DOLLARS

Respondents were asked about how they perceive the value returned on their property tax dollars. More people said they believe that they receive “Poor Value” than said they receive “Good Value.” And WAY more people said they receive “Very Poor Value” than said they receive “Very Good Value.”

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This is troublesome. It is important that people trust their local government. If they are seeing poor value in their tax dollars, that needs to be a big concern for Council.

So how can this be addressed?

In earlier questions, respondents said they are largely satisfied with the services delivered. That tells me that just improving services is unlikely to increase perceptions of value for tax dollars. Instead, we need to be looking at the money spent for those services.

I see a few focus areas the City should have to increase the value received by taxpayers:

  • Increase efficiency. We need to find opportunities to deliver current services for less money. This is already being done: it’s why we could lower residential taxes while increasing services in 2019. But this work needs to continue. You can click here to learn about the City’s current initiatives to become a leaner organisation.

  • Decrease low priority services. There are some services delivered by the City that don’t significantly enhance the community. Many of these services should receive less funding. You can click here to learn about Priority Based Budgetting (PBB), which is being used to better align spending with Council’s Strategic Plan.

  • Evaluate funding sources. The City of Grande Prairie’s per capita spending is in line with other Alberta municipalities. But our taxes, especially on the residential side, are relatively high. This is likely a big contributor to our residents feeling they receive low value for their taxes. There are two big reasons that Grande Prairie has higher taxes despite not having higher spending than elsewhere: 1) compared to many other municipalities, Grande Prairie sets low rates for many of its non-tax revenue sources (ex: fees, charges, and utility franchise fees), and 2) compared to many other municipalities, we collect a high proportion of our taxes from residential rather than non-residential customers. Council needs to give careful consideration to what proportion of its budget comes from various revenue sources.

  • Communicate Better. One reason that people likely believe they receive low value for their tax dollars: they don’t know where all their money goes. We should continue to improve efforts to make it easy to know what the City is up to. Additionally, a lot of work has gone into spending money more efficiently and better targeting community priorities. But the community doesn’t know that. We need to do a better job of demonstrating good stewardship with public dollars.


ROADS AND PUBLIC SAFETY SHOULD BE TOP PRIORITIES

Survey respondents were asked to rank a number of City services from most important to least important. Of the top 10 services, 7 related to transportation and 2 related to policing and fire.

As we allocate funding, roads and safety need to be our top concerns.

However, indoor recreation facilities also broke the community’s top ten list and Family and Community support Services was number 10. As we work to make it possible to travel around Grande Prairie and safe to be here, we can’t forget that the City also has an important role to play in making it worthwhile to live here.


SNOW REMOVAL NEEDS ATTENTION

When respondents were asked to rank services by their importance, 5 of the top 10 Most Important services had to do with Snow & Ice Control. In addition to being an expensive service, this is one respondents really value. It needs to be delivered well.

Earlier in the year, an additional survey was carried out to ask residents about their views regarding snow removal. While 70% were satisfied with this service on priority 1 routes, 61% said they were “Unsatisfied” or “Very Unsatisfied” with it on residential roads. 53% of respondents also said they would like to see the Snow & Ice Control budget increased.

Council should take note of this, as well as the many concerns we hear about snow removal throughout our informal conversations in the community.

I don’t think Council should direct any changes during its deliberations this November. We’re already into the current snow removal season, and no work has gone into preparing alternative ways to remove snow. Any changes that are directed now will be done without proper forethought and preparation.

However: I’ve been advocating for us to do a review of our Snow & Ice Control programs. We should be looking for and pricing out alternative ways to deliver this service. We should be learning about how other municipalities are taking care of their snow and ice. Then, we should have a conversation with the community about whether our services should stay the same, be increased, or decreased.

You can click here to read more about my views on snow removal.


POLICING NEEDS CONTINUED ATTENTION

While a majority of respondents said they were “Satisfied” or “Very Satisfied” with policing, concerns about it were still brought up many times in individual comments. This is troubling. Policing is one of the most important services provided by the City. It is also the single most expensive service. Council needs to address the concerns many residents have about our police service.

Policing happens to be a topic I’ve spent a great deal of time on this year. I was tasked with representing the City at a series of provincial round table meetings that were reviewing the Police Act. Because of my time advocating for provincial change, I’ve dedicated a great deal of time to learning about policing models across Canada. This led me to become part of two initiatives:

  • The formation of a Policing Committee. The City is currently exploring the formation of a Policing Committee. If created, this would give our community more ability to supervise and direct the RCMP to ensure that local priorities are being delivered on. This committee will also better position us to explore moving away from having police services delivered through an RCMP contract.

  • Lobbying the province to change police funding. Due to an unjust provincial funding model, City taxpayers pay a disproportionate share of the cost of policing. The province has introduced legislation to start requiring ALL municipalities, not just large towns and cities, to share in the cost of their police. The province has also promised that any new money it raises from this change will go to increased police resources in rural areas. As a new model is implemented, it is my hope that Council will undertake efforts to insure that the City doesn’t disproportionately contribute to regional policing initiatives.

Feedback we received was a useful validation of my time spent on policing. It tells me that this is a worthwhile area of continued focus as I go into 2020.


Those are my take-aways from considering the public feedback received by the City. But I’d also love to hear directly from you: what do you think I should be considering as Council enters budget deliberations?

I’d also encourage you to check back here soon. I’ll be posting a few other Budget 2020 articles, including one about provincial and federal impacts on the City budget and another about my goals going into budget deliberations.

Thanks for taking the time to read!

-Dylan