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Getting the public's input

County of Barrhead councillors approve public engagement plan for 2021 budget process, which includes an online survey
cropped-Dennis Nanninga, Sept. 15
Coun. Dennis Nanninga said councillors should be prepared to hear some negative comments when they receive their budget surveys later on this fall, noting the public is not in a good mood due to everything from a poor harvest, a slow down of the economy and COVID. Barry Kerton/BL

BARRHEAD-County of Barrhead residents will have an opportunity to have their say in how the municipality derives the 2021 budget.

However, due to the coronavirus, the method of how residents express their opinions on what the municipality's budget priorities should be will differ from previous years.

On Sept. 15, councillors unanimously approved the public engagement plan for the 2021 budget survey.

In the summer of 2018, the municipality approved its public engagement policy (Policy 11.24). The municipality was required to create the policy when the province amended the Municipal Government Act (MGA).

County manager Debbie Oyarzun said while it wasn't necessary to have public engagement as part of the budget process, but as a matter of tradition, the municipality has always tried to engage the public in some way before councillors finalize the budget. The majority of times budget public engagement takes the form of a public open house.

However, due to COVID, she said that is not the best method, noting they had to cancel the event for the 2020 budget.

Oyarzun added this year it is especially important to get resident's feedback given the challenges council faces.

"We need to do some education and consulting given the potential impact of the [province's oil and gas assessment review] and the downloading of policing costs," she said.

This summer the province announced it would be changing the way it assesses linear assessment or the property tax the energy industry pays to municipalities. Depending on what option the province chooses, it is estimated that the County of Barrhead would lose from three to five per cent of its total assessment base equating to between $30 million and $52 million which equates to an estimated $500,000 to $900,000 loss in tax revenue.

The potential loss in linear tax revenue comes at a time when the province is increasing rural municipalities policing costs. Starting this year, counties and municipal districts and communities under 5,000 will have to start paying a portion of their policing costs.

In 2020, municipalities will have to contribute 10 per cent. Their share will rise every year until it reaches 30 per cent of policing costs by 2023.

For the County of Barrhead in 2020, this means an extra $133,492 increasing to just over $400,000 in 2024.

Oyarzun noted last year, prior to the budget open house, the municipality also posted an online survey asking residents for input on the budget.

"It was quite well received," she said, noting more than 300 residents completed the survey.

She added that the survey would be online on their website, posted for about two weeks. The administration is working towards Oct. 1 to Oct. 15 as a target date. Hard copies of the survey will be available through the municipal office.

"If you consider that normally we only hold a one-evening open house, [the survey] gives people more of an opportunity to give their input," Oyarzun.

Residents will be informed about the survey via the county's webpage, the Barrhead and Area Crime Coalition (BARCC) alert system as well as advertisements in the local newspaper. She is hoping councillors will also push the survey through their social media platforms, noting the municipality doesn't have one of its own.

Coun. Walter Preugschas suggested early October is the wrong time to circulate a survey, noting it is in the middle of the harvest season.

Reeve Doug Drozd interjected that there is never a perfect time that will suit everyone, adding since the survey will be online they can do it at their leisure.

Coun. Dennis Nanninga said while he supported the public engagement and the survey, the council should brace themselves for a lot of negative comments.

"The general public right now is frustrated with lots of things, given the economy and the pandemic," he said. "And while it is good to know how residents feel about things, it is up to us to make the decisions."