Calgary Herald

Quit your whining — design a better city budget

- Paula arab paula aRab is a coluMnist and MeMbeR of tHe HeRald editoRial boaRd. paRab@calgaRyHeR­ald.coM

If you could wave your magic taxpayer’s wand, and ask the city for any service, what would you wish for? What top spending picks would make life in Calgary a more dynamic place for you, your family and your neighbours?

Better yet, if you could tell the city what not to spend, to reduce Tuesday’s projected 23.7 per cent tax increase over the next three years, what would you trim?

I would cut 500 positions in the 14,000-person workforce before slashing transit hours or closing fire halls. I would rethink the city’s funding formula, which allows spending to increase every year because it’s tied to consumer price inflation and growth in population.

My wish is for more responsibl­e snow and ice removal, so that Calgarians can get to where they’re going safely, and without wasting precious time in traffic. I want better public transporta­tion, so I can hang up my car keys altogether, especially when the weather is treacherou­s. Taking public transit now is hardly a realistic option for me, and thousands of others who don’t live on an LRT line. I’d have to take a bus, two trains and another bus to get 10 kilometres to work, which is practicall­y a direct route down Memorial Drive, and one I can drive in 12 minutes, or 20 tops, in traffic.

I want more affordable housing for our students, artists and other young people, to keep them and their energy and talent in Calgary. As it stands, any place that allows secondary suites, or creates work/living studios, frankly, is all it takes to be more welcoming to low-income earners.

Readers should think about what they want, because the city says it cares how ordinary citizens define their budget priorities. You heard correctly. The city wants to know what you and I think about what should and should not be funded in the 2012-2014 municipal budget. Now is the time to get in your two cents, after the city’s chief bean counter predicted taxes have to increase 23.7 per cent or there will be a $100-million shortfall in three years.

It’s a thought-provoking exercise, and one I recently undertook when invited to participat­e in the first of a series of public workshops as part of the second phase of Our City, Our Budget, Our Future. The public engagement process also includes an online survey that asks participan­ts to weigh more than 200 public services. A report will be delivered to council in time for June’s first peek at the next budget cycle.

“Mayor (Naheed) Nenshi and city council have decided to revolution­ize the budget process by asking Calgarians to provide their input at the beginning of the process,” says the city’s blog, calgary.ca/ourfuture. “This way, the city can prepare a proposed budget that is in line with your values and priorities.”

It’s revolution­ary if only for its contrast to the near exclusion of citizens in previous years, when presenters had just five minutes to argue for their budget requests.

“We don’t see participat­ory budgeting in many places around the world,” says Brenna Atnikov, who attended the public workshop on behalf of the anti-poverty agency Momentum. “It just shows how progressiv­e the direction that city council is moving toward . . . This isn’t advocacy. It’s having your voice heard.”

Atnikov, who sat at my table, believes the city will listen to our answers come budget time. I have my doubts, but am hoping Nenshi will be good for his word, and that this is more than a token gesture.

If the booklets handed out Tuesday are any indication, the process is off to a good start. Unlike the budget document, which reads as if it’s written for city hall insiders, the budget kit is easy to follow and offers a snapshot of each department and its services. It strikes me as the kind of informatio­n that really does help people speak “politics in full sentences” — Nenshi’s catchphras­e and promise to Calgarians during his campaign for mayor.

For instance, under Animal and Bylaw Services, the department has an operating budget of $11.5 million for 2011. It provides services for pets, enforces park and pathway regulation­s, addresses snow and noise complaints and provides bylaw enforcemen­t. I can immediatel­y see that bylaw enforcemen­t is a big area of spending. Yet, just 25,000 of 87,000 calls in 2009 related to animals, a large chunk of its mandate. My wish, simply from reading this snapshot, is that the city would go through all the bylaws it spends resources enforcing, and before adding new ones, would eliminate those that are obsolete, unnecessar­y or needlessly interfere in people’s lives.

Calgarians have barked enough about their property taxes going up. Finally, council wants to hear what citizens would do better. With the genie out of the municipal bottle, taxpayers have an obligation to raise their voices and make their budget wishes heard.

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