SUMMERSIDE – Summerside city council turned a page in formulating the 2014 municipal budget not only by giving councilors a bigger role in the process but also going to the public.
© MIke Carson/Journal Pioneer
Summerside’s Chief Financial Officer Rob Philpott discusses the 2014 municipal budget with city residents during a public pre-budget session held at Credit Union Place in December. The exercise proved worthwhile for the city and future public budget consultations will be scheduled.
Last December, the city opened the books to the public explaining how revenue is collected and where it is spent. The public was given a list of four questions to be discussed. The questions asked: What city programs and services are most important? How should the city deal with the costs of delivering these programs and services? Should the city increase its $68 million debt to take on significant infrastructure projects? How can the city be more effective with tax dollars and what areas could be trimmed?
Deputy Mayor Bruce MacDougall, chairman of the city’s financial services committee said this exercise with residents and business people helped form the 2014 budget.
“I get to deliver the budget process but there’s a lot of work, a lot of give and take,” the deputy mayor said. “The budget consultation process that we had in early December, we’ll be doing that again this year. We would love to see more people out this year. It was really good and we had a lot of good suggestions come out of that. And there was a lot of that the formed the basis of this budget.”
He said creating a budget involves making difficult choices and setting priorities.
“These decision have not been easy to make,” MacDougall said. “The decisions are the result of listening carefully to what our residents have to say, what we believe are sound directions for the future and are based on evidence and consultation with all of our community.”
In addition to the public process, Chief Financial Officer Rob Philpott and Chief Administrative Officer Bob Ashley changed budget deliberations internally that saw city councillors involved in budget discussions from the outset and not mid-way through the process.
Under the old process, the chief administrative officer and the chief financial officer would meet with the department heads individually to go over budget requests for the upcoming year. The CAO and the CFO would develop a draft budget that they would bring forth to council for consideration.
Councillors now sit in on all budget discussions between department heads and the CAO and CFO. They have input into the discussions. Being able to meet one-on-one with the departmental directors gives councillors a sense as to what challenges each of their departments are facing and what the key areas of concern are for the upcoming year.
Councillor Tina Mundy credited Philpott and Ashley for getting the public and council more involved in the budget process.
“I think that was a really god exercise on our behalf,” she said. It’s been a breath of fresh air, this budget process with the engagement and how involved we were right from the beginning and sitting in when the directors presented their budgets to the CAO and the CFO. I found that to be a real.ly eye-opening experience. I got see where the departments I chair work out their priorities.”
Councillor Jeff Sullivan said the change in how the budget was developed makes for better fiscal management especially with the involvement of the public and the increased involvement of council.
“The first thing that jumps out about this budget is the change in process,” Sullivan said. “Three words might be open, communicative and collaborative. From the very outset it was a real great change in tone and very interactive.”