Saturday, May 21, 2022

Statutory Public Budget Meeting Sees No Engagement From Ratepayers

The annual statutory public budget meeting is an opportunity for ratepayers to learn about the coming year’s municipal budget and to offer their input before Council votes to approve the 2022 budgets. Monday’s statutory public meeting saw just a handful of folks taking in the live-stream of the meeting, and not one resident registered to speak to Council about the budget.

Before you blame the seeming lack of interest on the fact that the meeting had to be held virtually due to the COVID-19 restrictions, this isn’t new. Even prior to the pandemic the annual public budget meetings rarely drew an audience of half a dozen residents, and that is the number that viewed Monday’s statutory public meeting as it was happening. The following day the archived meeting had received a grand total of 30 views.

Given the number of complaints I and members of Council hear about municipal taxes throughout the year, it is perhaps surprising that ratepayers generally don’t attend the annual budget meeting, missing their opportunity to share their views, or to make suggestions to Council.

After my budget editorial was published two weeks ago, I received roughly 10 email messages from residents suggesting that there are many places in our municipal budget that could be cut, however as I had mentioned in that previous editorial, nobody seems to be willing to identify services that they could live with being cut or reduced, and the same held true in the communications I have received recently.

One reader told me that staff could be cut in half, that we have more staff than our neighbours. Fine, I understand the position, but without knowing what services you’d be willing to cut, it is hard to know what staff positions people assume we could live without.

Another reader told me that they had a list of a dozen items that could be slashed from the budget. The list was never provided, and I gave up asking questions to try to pry the list out of the reader after three email messages.

Despite the flood of email messages informing that the budget increase for 2022 could be much lower than the blended rate of 3.78 percent, if not zero, not a single ratepayer registered to provide comment during the statutory budget meeting. Not one. To blame the virtual meeting simply doesn’t fly as we have examples of previous virtual meetings that have attracted more than 30 registered speakers. The meeting regarding the proposed waterfront development at the end of Boucher Street was one example, so if people are concerned enough about an issue, they certainly don’t seem to be bothered about expressing their views in the virtual meeting format.

To a few of the readers that sent me email messages related to the budget, I suggested that given it is an election year, and that they have so many ideas of how the municipality could be better run, and its budgets slashed along with property tax rates, they should consider running for council to put all those big ideas into action. None seemed eager to accept the suggestion, which is disappointing given the certainty of some of these folks that they have the answers that this and previous terms of council simply have not been able to find.

Municipal governance and municipal budgets are more complex than most realize and the pressures upon municipal budgets are great. The needs pull in many directions, while the wants are often ignored due to financial constraints.

Again, the lack of attendance and the lack of participation during annual statutory public budget meetings is no surprise, it is fairly standard, but it doesn’t jive with the constant complaints and criticisms we hear the rest of the year about municipal taxes, the size of municipal staff, or the wants that are being ignored.

Like many things in life, we get out of it what we put in, and complaining about municipal taxes on social media, and calling elected representatives names does nothing to bring any change, but engagement in the process certainly can.

In the middle of this month our Council will vote to approve the 2022 municipal budgets, and they will do so having heard no opposition at the formal and statutory public meeting, so members of Council could justifiably conclude that residents are pleased with the budget, though if they are that would have been good to hear from residents during that meeting also.

Meaford ratepayers have certainly had much larger increases to absorb in years past, and though this year’s blended rate increase is pushing four percent, our inflation rate is even higher, and not a single municipal service was cut, so as I have previously written this budget is an achievement given the circumstances of the past two years.

With a municipal election coming our way in October, I suppose the ultimate approval of this budget could well be expressed at the ballot box.

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