By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News
The Town of Coalhurst is considering ways to engage residents for future budget consultations.
Town administration has been working on a new annual budget process which includes residents in a consultation process, rather than providing residents with an informative campaign after the budget has been passed. They presented Coalhurst town council with two possible platform options they could utilize for this during their regular Aug. 15 meeting: Citizen Budget and SurveyMonkey.
Citizen Budget is an interactive engagement tool that will ask users to show their funding preferences for municipal areas. A user enters their assessment information and using a slider function, can adjust what their individual tax bill would look like based on where they would like to see funding increases. The tool can be run throughout the year, with the results remaining on the landing page, allowing them to be accessed at later dates. A demo had been provided to council and included in the agenda.
Citizen Budget would cost $10-12,000 for the first year, which includes the initial set up, training and landing page, and about $7,500 for future years. This cost would need to be added to the budget, but in 2023, it could be funded through the MSI-Operating Grant. It would be considered best practice to fund it through taxation for future years, should council decide to go this route.
SurveyMonkey is an online survey software that has been used by the Town in the past. Like Citizen Budget, it asks the users questions pertaining to the subject, but it does not have an interactive user interface. Administration can craft the necessary survey questions and analyze the results after a period of time has passed.
SurveyMonkey costs $400/year. This cost is already in the Town’s Operating Budget, so there would be no additional cost to the Town.
Coun. Heather Caldwell noted that the cost difference between the two options made it “really difficult to make that decision”. Coun. Scott Akkerman asked if the Town’s CAO, Shawn Patience, had heard of other communities using software like Citizen Budget. Patience said he had, but as he wasn’t involved in those communities he didn’t know their outcomes in things like community acceptance.
“I agree it’s certainly not a cheap fix. We can determine similar results through SurveyMonkey that’s properly put together. Certainly, a lot more administrative work to do that, but that’s not a complaint I would have,” said Patience. “The advantage to this is that it really gives residents a hands-on feel on some of the decision making processes council must go through during the budget cycle, and see that every yin has a yang: it makes them aware that we can provide any services that residents want, but there’s also a cost to that.”
Patience cautioned that it would be hard to qualify some increases or decreases depending on the department, and while he didn’t think it was a perfect tool, it was an “intriguing” tool, and it was brought forward as it met one of council’s strategic pillars: involving the community in the decision-making process.
Mayor Lyndsay Montina noted that something like this was important, as it goes along with the idea of transparency, understanding where the money is going and getting community input. But she agreed with Akkermans that it was only one piece of the puzzle. Patience said they could look through other options as they go through the process. Akkermans expressed a desire to learn more about other options in budget consultations.
“For me personally, this does have a high price tag, and not having all that information on what the other options are going to look like. Maybe this is the best option, but maybe there’s another option where maybe we can piggyback something similar onto it, at a cost that’s maybe spread out more over different kinds of engagement versus just the budget,” said Akkermans. “I do think we should have something out there; I just don’t know if this is necessarily the solution when we don’t have kind of the whole picture to look at.”
Montina said she didn’t think the price was too high, but didn’t think this was the best tool, and wanted to see a plan around public engagement where the software is fully utilized.
Council passed a motion to accept the Budget Consultation Tool RFD as information.