By Aldo Santin
Winnipeggers are getting a chance to let city hall know how they want their property tax dollars spent.
The first of several community forums on the 2015 civic budget begins today — this morning at the Sport Manitoba offices and later this afternoon at the Norberry-Glenlee community centre.
"We invited our own sport community and said this is happening," Kim Browning, Sport Manitoba’s marketing director said of the first Budget Talk session. "They might want to bring up recreation facilities but if it’s potholes or rapid transit — we’ve let them know it’s completely wide open."
The Budget Talk sessions are part of a thorough community engagement process designed and implemented by Ottawa-based consulting firm Dialogue Partners.
Dialogue Partners was awarded the budget consultation contract after submitting a bid judged the most comprehensive and best value for money, said Bonnie Staples-Lyon, the City of Winnipeg’s director of policy and communications.
'I've long been a proponent that we need to do a better job of engaging the public'
City officials boasted last year about the community consultations process surrounding the preparation of the 2014 budget but Coun. Jenny Gerbasi said that process appeared to be geared to produce what senior councillors wanted to hear.
"I’ve long been a proponent that we need to do a better job of engaging the public," Gerbasi said. "I don’t think what we’ve done (in the past) has been a good job."
Gerbasi demanded on the floor of council that city hall had to be a better job for the 2015 budget and cited the City of Calgary’s community budget consultations, which coincidently, was an award-winning program that was also designed and carried out by Dialogue Partners.
Gerbasi is also hosting a Budget Talk session June 7. She reached out to her long list of contacts in Fort Rouge and the downtown area and invited them to participate.
"I’m willing to give it a chance and support any kind of public engagement we can possibly do as long as it genuine and going to be a good and fair process," Gerbasi said of explaining why she is one of only a handful of councillors who are hosting a Budget Talk event.
Council set aside $250,000 in this year’s budget for budget consultations, which covers the Dialogue Partners’ contract and associated expenses.
The Budget Talks are the second step of Dialogue Partner’s efforts to engage Winnipeggers on how their tax dollars are spent. The first step was a series of interviews and an online survey of city staff, politicians and the public of how they wanted the consultation to occur and what they expected to see from it.
"We have lots of experience in engaging people in conversations on complex issues," Stephani Roy-McCallum, managing director at Dialogue Partners said. "Our goal was to really involve people in a meaningful way."
The results of the preliminary interview and online surveys are available on the city’s Budget2015 website.
"People said they didn’t want to have a conversation that polarized or pitted people against each other," Roy-McCallum said. "They wanted to get together with neighbours and friends and talk about how do we create this future we want to see in Winnipeg and how do we do it in a spirit of co-operation."
Roy-McCallum said the Budget Talk sessions will be interactive, with a great deal of small-group discussions and debates on priorities.
"We’ll be talking to people about how city services impact their lives," said Kim Hyshka, Dialogue Partners’ senior consultant who is in Winnipeg facilitating the sessions. "We’ll be talking to people about their best ideas for wise spending choices....building a budget that serves the needs of all the people in Winnipeg."
Groups can hold their own budget discussions, using a guide prepared by the consultants with the answers fed back to Dialogue Partners.
Information from the sessions will be collected, coded, synthesized and the results distributed in an interim report in July.
"We will give people access to everything that was said, also a summary of the key points or themes that emerged, where there’s agreement and where there are differences in views," Roy-McCallum said.
After a new council is elected in October, the consultants will return and ask the participants, the new councillors and others, she said, and using the interim report as a guide, ask them where they want to put the money.
A final report will go to council and senior administrative management in time for preparation of the city’s draft budget in December.
The other Budget Talk session today is hosted by St. Vital councillor Brian Mayes, who explained that he has held community budget consultations in the past, with mixed results.
"I had seven people come to one in Dakota Collegiate," Mayes said. "I’m hoping to get a better turnout," for this afternoon’s event at the Norberry-Glenlee community centre.