City residents to tweak city budget
Online tool lets you tax and spend as you see fit except on administration
Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014 06:00 am
Here’s what’s in that $861.
Capital Financing (interest on loans): $366
Information Technology Services: $90
Financial Services: $82
Human Resources: $85
Legal Services: $70
Corporate Strategic Services: $32
Corporate Planning: $11
Corporate Communication: $33
City Manager : $35
Legislative Services: $34
Assessment & Taxation Services: $4
A new online tool will let St. Albert residents help plan how the city spends its tax dollars – but won’t let them cut administration’s budget.
City council has asked St. Albert residents to use a new online budget tool to help plan the 2015 city budget.
It’s the first time that the city has used such a tool in its budget planning process.
Council asked administration to come up with new methods of public consultation for the budget about a year ago, said Mayor Nolan Crouse.
Traditional town halls tend to draw the same 10 to 20 people year after year no matter where or when they’re held, Crouse said.
“This is intended to reach a more diverse audience.”
Last year, the city used Twitter, Facebook and focus groups to try and bring more people into the budget process, Crouse said. This year, they’re trying this online tool.
The tool is a website based on one that Grande Prairie has used successfully in the past, said Maya Pungur-Buick, the city’s general manager of strategic services.
“Using this tool, people can allocate their taxes up or down for different program segments.”
The website shows a breakdown of the sources of the city’s cash and expenditures as presented in pie charts and tables, as well as a description of what various city departments do.
The site shows that the city currently takes in about $159.7 million in revenue each year, about 54 per cent ($85 million) of which comes from property taxes.
A typical owner of a $400,000 home in St. Albert paid about $3,015 in municipal taxes in 2014, the site shows.
Once you’ve typed in the assessed value of your property into the website, you can use sliders to adjust the budgets of 10 different departments such as recreation and parks, transit and environmental services. You can also write in comments for specific changes you’d like to see in each department.
The website then shows you how these changes will affect your tax bills and how other respondents tweaked the budget.
If you want more snow removal, for example, you can up public works spending by five per cent and add about $24.50 to your tax bill (assuming you own a $400,000 home). If you think the city has too many firefighters, you can cut protective services by four per cent and save $30.16.
The tool lets you add or subtract up to $107.71 from your tax bill in total, assuming you make an across-the-board cut/hike of five per cent.
No cuts to admin?
The tool does not let residents propose cuts or increases to administration, support services and capital financing. This is the most expensive item on the tool’s list of tax-supported services, taking up 29 per cent ($861) of the average homeowner’s tax bill.
Pungur-Buick said staff decided not to include this category in part because it included interest payments on loans, which cannot be cut.
“We’re focused on programs and services rather than interest.”
A breakdown of this category provided to the Gazette shows that interest payments account for $366 of the $861 in taxes paid by the average owner of a $400,000 home. The rest ($495, or 16 per cent of the average tax bill) goes towards items such as information technology ($90), legal services ($70), the city manager’s office ($35) and council ($20).
Pungur-Buick said these areas might be made adjustable in future surveys.
The city hopes at least 200 people will take the survey before it closes this Aug. 22, Pungur-Buick said.
“If we get 400, that will be really great.”
The results will be summarized and presented to council Sept. 8 to help guide budget decisions.
“It’s not intended to be a precise, prescriptive indicator to council,” Pungur-Buick said – it’s not a statistically significant, controlled survey.
“It’s more to show council (that) people would like to see more here and less here.”
It will ultimately be up to council how to use this survey information, Crouse said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy yes/no.”
Council also plans to hold regular town hall budget meetings this fall, Crouse added.
The survey can be found at www.ourcitybudget.com.