Each year, whether they are homeowners or renters, the residents of London’s 130,000 homes pay thousands of dollars in taxes to the City of London.
As they do so, many of them complain about the value they get for the taxes they pay. Which makes you wonder: When given the opportunity, why do so few citizens show up to learn or comment or ask questions about how the city spends their money?
That’s a question municipal governments across the land struggle to answer. Over the years in London the ways of gathering honest feedback from the citizens has become ever more sophisticated, but the reality here — as elsewhere in Canada — has been that as the budget gets bigger public participation in helping shape it gets smaller.
In 2013, the City of London will spend more than $1 billion through its departments, boards and commissions. All of that money, in one way or another, will come from us. It may be paid as property taxes, it may be buried in rents, it may be in user charges, it may be grants from other levels of government which also raise their funds from us.
Partly the problem is the sheer size and scope of budgets for modern cities. This year’s London budget and related documents runs to about 1,500 pages of numbers and weighs almost 12 pounds, notes Rob Paynter, the city’s manager of communications.
“Engaging people on the budget is a hard thing to do,” he acknowledges. “A lot of people don’t care, for a lot of people the budget is so dense that they think, ‘how do I begin to understand it?’ So in a sense they say, ‘I’ll just trust the staff and the council to make the right decisions.’
“Public engagement is a big new world. We’re trying to let the people in, trying to make that as simple as possible. But the budget is a terrible document to try to do it with.”
That said, the city is making a game attempt this year to open up the public engagement process. One innovative idea will be deployed this Saturday (Jan. 12) in a pair of workshops designed to help citizens understand how the budget is put together and encourage comment on the result.
The workshops represent a significant change from the past years when city councillors held sessions at major city shopping malls, although most were poorly attended.
Explains Rosanna Wilcox, a manager in the city’s finance department: “The workshops are a kind of two-way consultative session where we can learn from people who attend and vice versa. It’s an opportunity for people to talk about services, those we provide and those they value. Information like that really informs our planning.”
The politicians have been invited to participate in the workshops, but they won’t be running them. Instead, Saturday will be an opportunity for them to listen — although this isn’t something they do well at times — and get a more impartial understanding of issues important to the public.
And why should you get involved?
“The budget is at the heart of everything we do as a city,” says Ms. Wilcox. “It speaks to how we maintain the quality of life in our community.”
To join a workshop this Saturday, check the city’s website www.london.ca.
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.