The Cowichan Valley Regional District is considering new approaches to gather public input during the annual budget-building process.
A staff report, prepared by communications and engagement manager Kris Schumacher, said that town-hall meetings held in previous years were mostly sparsely attended, as were public meetings held last year by each of the district’s eight commissions and committees to gather input into their specific budgets.
Schumacher said other local governments have attempted to engage residents with the use of online budgeting tools, as North Cowichan did with the Citizen Budget platform around its 2018 budget.
“Despite heavy public promotion of the tool, North Cowichan only received 213 participants, which represents just 0.9 per cent of residents,” he said in the report.
Schumacher pointed out that the CVRD operates 180 services, each with its own budget and myriad of operational and financial considerations.
“It is distinctly different from a municipality in that almost every one of its functions requires a voter-assented service with its own tax requisition,” he said.
“This is one of many reasons why it is difficult for the general public to understand the CVRD budget and provide informed input to assist the board in their decision-making process.”
Considering the struggle to engage with the public during the annual budget-building process and solicit feedback, Schumacher said staff propose consideration of a number of new approaches.
One is to seek the public feedback much earlier in the 2020 budget process which would allow the public more time to become informed of budgetary changes and challenges to be addressed.
As well, Schumacher said tools like PlaceSpeak and the CVRD website can and have been used effectively to inform the public and collect feedback on a range of topics, so effort could be spent to make the 2020 budget even easier to navigate and interpret for residents from the comfort of their own homes, and on their own time.
“Reducing the number of public meetings would save resources and potentially see better attendance at the meetings that were held,” he said.
“This approach could include multiple meetings, but scheduled throughout the budget process rather than clustered together at one stage in the process.”
Schumacher said hosting public meetings to review only certain services, or groupings of services, like recreation and solid waste, may also see greater public participation.
“Consideration of the budget in its entirety can be seen as unwieldy for many, and some residents may be more willing to engage on topics that they feel strongly about or have a deeper knowledge of,” he said.
The CVRD’s corporate services committee asked Schumacher at its meeting on June 12 to summarize the options and bring back a report outlining them with the associated costs.