Public participation in planning processes is required by law, but it can be time-consuming, difficult and expensive. This year the City of Vancouver introduced a broader range of public participation tools in their budget planning process, as I detailed in a previous post. The City aimed to educate the public on the cost of services and the challenges in balancing the budget; to measure and understand why any changes in tax tolerance and service priorities; and to gather ideas for identifying cost efficiencies in the budget.
The City produced a Budget Basics booklet available online and distributed it to all city libraries, created a web portal at www.talkvancouver.com, introduced an online budgeting tool, and advertised in local newspapers, on the radio, and on Twitter. A total of 1221 residents and businesses completed the phone or online survey. Although people were also encouraged to comment by email or the City’s 3-1-1- phone services, most chose to do the surveys. A surprising 31% of respondents to the online survey were 25-34 years old; while the response rate for 18-24 year olds was only 7%. Thirty-seven participants used the online budget allocator tool. This is a vast improvement on public meetings on the budget (at a public meeting held this year, only 13 people attended).
The proposed 2012 Operating Budget details the City’s commitment to fund critical programs, increase productivity and make strategic adjustments to programs and services, while increasing property taxes by 2.5%. Several improvements in efficiency have already been made: the City introduced a bylaw adjudication model to deal with unpaid parking tickets quickly, expanded their electronic pay notices to include 97% of City employees, and streamlined sanitation services. The City also increased its utility revenues from sewer, solid waste and water utility rates by 7.9%. In the 2012 Operating Budget, there are increases in the policing and utilities budgets, and small increases to libraries, parks and recreation, and engineering services. The other areas remain the same as in 2011.
There were some other interesting findings for planners. The top three local issues were identified as social (homelessness, affordable housing), transportation (public transit, congestion and bike lanes), and taxation. Several of these issues are federal or provincial responsibilities, illustrating the challenges municipalities face in responding to critical priorities among residents. Crime and personal safety were lower priorities less than ever before; only 10% of residents and 8% of businesses identified this as a major issue. The vast majority of citizens and business were satisfied with city services, but felt that property taxes were too high. However, when asked specifically about the 2012 budget, 80% of residents and 65% of businesses indicated a willingness to accept up to a 3% property tax increase; in fact, most people (81%) were unwilling to reduce city services, preferring a property tax increase or increase in efficiencies instead. Half of homeowners were willing to pay a tax increase of 9% and 59% were willing to pay an increase of 6%, which the report states is “quite typical” (I found this surprising). Among renters, 77% were willing to pay $5 more in rent per month to maintain current service levels. Businesses are far less supportive of these higher tax levels. Some initiatives to lower costs had strong support from the public: using green techniques and less mowing to manage open spaces, offering more city services online rather than in person, and reducing garbage pickup frequency while increasing the ability to recycle food waste.
Planners and planning theorists take note: both residents and businesses were in favour of decreasing the number of public hearings and meetings, reduced enforcement of nuisance and minor City by-laws, and reduced land-use planning as cost saving measures. Other forms of feedback (phone/online surveys, mail-back and email methods) were preferred over public hearings/meetings. This is a sign of the times, and a confirmation of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s comment that town halls and public meetings were the most expensive and least useful engagement methods in their budget planning process last year. I’ve never been a fan of these types of open forums, and I’d love to see more targeted outreach to demographic groups such as youth and young adults (e.g. Facebook surveys, continued advertising of planning processes on Twitter).
The City of Vancouver will hold a public hearing on February 29th to allow citizens to respond the proposed budget, and then deliberate on the Final Budget Report, which will presented March 5th.