By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
For the amount of interaction in the council chambers in the early months of the new year, it’s clear that budgets spell boredom. But now, the City of Oshawa and councillors are hunting for new ways to show residents just how their tax dollars are being used.
A recently launched online budget tool (available at oshawabudget.ca), allows users to practice their hands at balancing their own budget, moving funds from one department to the next. The tool also allows residents to provide feedback during the process, commenting on where they believe funds should be placed while providing reasons why dollars should be taken from one department and placed into another.
“It’s an initiative that I think is important to engage the public on and I want to continue to see us do more and more each and every year, and I think this is a step in the right direction,” says Councillor Dan Carter, who also chairs council’s finance committee. “Any tool that we can use to engage people to better understand the amount of resources we have, where the allocation goes and how they have a say in that process, I think is very, very helpful.”
In 2017, the city’s operating budget sat at approximately $132 million, complimented by $34 million for capital investments. However, a previous city survey found that many residents are unaware of how their tax dollars fit into the equation. Last year, more than 1,800 community members provided input for the 2017 budget. From their responses, the city noted that approximately half of them did not know where their tax dollars were being used, or the differences in the services offered by the city and those provided by the Region of Durham.
Of tax dollars collected by the city, approximately 41 cents is handed over to the region, and 18 cents goes to the school boards.
Carter says that, in part, the blame for the lack of understanding falls to the city.
“Part of that is our fault. We need to continue to do everything we possibly can as an outreach, to educate, engage and inform people,” he says.
With that said, Carter notes that it hasn’t been easy making these tools a reality inside the walls of city hall.
“You wouldn’t believe the pushback that I had from year one to say, I want to have the public engaged,” he says. “When we don’t include people, what they feel is we just arbitrarily make these decisions.”
Moving forward, Carter hopes that the city will continue with the current initiatives, while also adding more ways for residents to become engaged with the city’s budget.
“This is not the end of it. I think we have to continue to find ways of being able to continue this process, it’s got to be evolutionary,” he says. “One of the best ways of engaging and building a city is by engaging people and giving them ownership.”
The city’s online tool is open to the public until Oct. 20, after which the feedback will be gathered and considered during the formation of the 2018 budget.
Similar to previous years, the city’s budget discussions will be stretched out over three months.
To start off, the time-sensitive capital projects will be presented to councillors on Nov. 16. On Dec. 11, those time-sensitive projects will be approved along with councillors and residents getting their first look at the 2018 capital budget. The city’s operating budget will be presented on Dec. 15.
In the new year, the budget will be open for public feedback during a meeting on Jan. 8, followed by two days of deliberations, set for Jan. 16 and 19.