The Niagara Region budget process is well underway, why is public consultation only beginning now?
On November 13th, the Regional Municipality of Niagara sent out a news release inviting the public to complete a survey on the 2024 budget “as part of its commitment to transparency and community engagement”.
”[I]n an effort to ensure that next year’s budget reflects the diverse needs and priorities of the community, residents are invited to participate in this survey, providing a unique opportunity to shape the financial decisions that impact our region,” the release states.
In addition to the citizen survey, a number of focus groups were supposed to be conducted, with results presented to Regional Council and the public December 7.
In the summer, staff made assurances the public would be engaged to provide input well ahead of critical budget decisions by the elected officials who are supposed to represent the residents that voted for them to do that job.
The work to gather public input prior to key decisions on how their money will be spent did not happen.
The release a week ago did not mention that the 2024 budget process is well underway, raising questions about why it has taken so long to open the public process around the Region’s financial blueprint for the year ahead.
A scan of Niagara’s 12 lower-tier municipalities indicates the Region is slow out of the gate with about half having already launched similar surveys on their respective websites. The slow pace follows an early promise from staff that the 2024 budget would include a robust public consultation component.
The Region’s budget actually consists of four operating budgets: the general levy (Regional departments and external Agencies, Boards & Commissions), the Water and Wastewater rates, and special levies for Regional Transit and Waste Management.
The 2024 budget survey can be found here.
To date, two of those budgets have already been finalized, with Council voting in favour of not increasing the Waste Management levy by using reserves to offset the 1.9 percent increase recommended by Staff and on Thursday, approving a 7.95 percent increase to the Water and Wastewater budget.
Council has directed the Transit Commission to look at options to consider reducing the special levy through an increase in fares, a reduction in capital transfers, with context on the operational impacts of these reductions, and revenue generation opportunities through advertising. Despite some unsuccessful efforts at mitigation, councillors are still looking at a potential general levy increase of 9 percent, which would add $40.1M to 2023’s total of $444.4M.
At the first meeting in relation to the 2024 budget in late July, staff promised “enhanced engagement with Council and Public.” Staff indicated that the results of the public engagement would be available in October “to aid Council in making critical budget decisions.”
The 2024 budget process began in earnest in mid-September with an introductory council workshop, followed by the commencement of weekly meetings or budget workshops in October. At the November 2 Budget Committee of the Whole meeting, Regional Councillor Bob Gale asked staff if he had somehow missed the results of the public engagement campaign — only to be told by staff that the public survey had been “deferred”.
An apoplectic Gale responded, “After the highest tax increase in recent memory (in 2023), and we are not going to hear from the public?”
Staff promised that the survey would go out the following week, with a three-week turn-around time for responses. But this didn’t happen. A week passed without the survey but a correspondence to Councillors from Chief Administrative Officer Ron Tripp, dated November 10 explained the Region had secured a consultant to undertake the consultation with the official launch date set for November 13.
However, councillors are already making key decisions about the budget, prior to the public consultation concluding. On November 16th council made the final decision on the budget for Water and Wastewater services. Budget Chair Wayne Redekop admitted the situation was “not ideal”.
With the Region’s budget schedule half-way completed, the Commissioner of Corporate Services and Treasurer, Todd Harrison was asked whether the survey was “too little, too late” to have an impact on the 2024 budget.
“No, I don’t think it is a matter of too little, too late. We are currently engaged in the budget process, which has seen a fair amount of coverage and discussion. The members of the public that are interested are paying attention now.”
Harrison did concede that it would have been preferable to have the survey out a couple of weeks earlier but said the slow pace was not due to an unwillingness to hear from the public.
“[W]e want to get a lot of engagement. When Councillor Gale brought it up, we had just had a meeting finalizing the questions. Our Comms people developed the questions and then they were vetted by my department and finally reviewed by the Leadership Team. Sometimes collaboration takes a little time.”
When reached on Tuesday, the day after the survey was released, Councillor Gale indicated he had no insight as to why the promised survey had taken until November: “[I] am just glad that it has finally been released. I was more flabbergasted that I was the only councillor to bring it up.”
The survey consists of sixteen questions under the following categories: Existing & New Infrastructure; Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority; Housing; Economic Development; Vulnerable Populations; Seniors Services; Police; Homeless Supports; Development Incentives; Road Safety; Childcare; Transit and Climate Change.
All of the potential survey responses follow the same template: allowing the respondent to indicate whether they feel that the related Regional service should be improved by increasing property taxes; whether services should be maintained by increasing property taxes relative to the cost of living; reduced by maintaining the current property taxes or whether funding for the given service should be cut to reduce property taxes.
Councillor Gale’s only criticism of the survey was that there was no option for greater input from residents. “There should have been an opportunity for residents to write 100 words, or less, on what they would like to see, any efficiencies they might suggest.”
When asked what public feedback he was most interested in, Commissioner Harrison had difficulty limiting it to just one particular area.
“The survey questions cover the gamut of our services but if I have to pick, I am most interested in the questions on Infrastructure. That’s a big one for me. The Region has $9 billion in assets. These are the people’s assets but maintaining and replacing them has been easily put aside, in the past, but now (the lack of capital investment) has been coming to roost.”
Councillor Gale said he did not expect that respondents to the survey would be in favor of cuts, but would likely fall into the category of an increase relative to the cost of living.
The results of the survey will not be presented until December 7 but the Committee of the Whole budget meetings continue on Thursday, with Council set to hear from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, Court Services, Niagara Region Housing and the Niagara Region Police Service.
The police service is looking for a 7.1 percent increase to the its 2024 budget, amounting to a total of approximately $190.5 million, including the proposed hike. The total approved 2023 police budget was $177.86 million.
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