Okotoks councillors set to their annual budget discussion armed with public survey responses collected over the past two months.
The Town of Okotoks ran public participation on budget guidelines in two phases: the first, a survey that asked general, high-level questions with regards to services and tax levels and a second phase that focused in on potential fee increases or service level decreases in more detail.
Public engagement was critical leading up to making decision on the 2021 budget, said CAO Elaine Vincent.
“It’s about understanding where your community is and isn’t, so as an organization we’re relevant to the community,” said Vincent.
She said the results of both surveys directly informed budget guidelines in the fall and deliberations that occurred between administration, council and the Finance and Audit Committee over three days on Nov. 17, 18 and 19.
There were 1,526 responses to the initial survey, which Vincent said was an unprecedented level of engagement on budget in the town. The second phase saw 894 participants, which is still considered statistically valid, she said.
The results provided some good direction based on the realities of the economic situation in Okotoks and the Foothills area as well as provincially and nationally, she said.
“We asked some very important questions, we felt, to understand in totality what levers the community wanted us to pull,” said Vincent.
Among the respondents, 63 per cent indicated they had been negatively impacted financially by COVID-19, and that was also taken into consideration for budget, she said.
While the majority of participants indicated they would not support a property tax increase in 2021 initially, in subsequent questions asking whether they would support service level reductions in order to accommodate for no tax increase about half of respondents changed their minds, she said.
“When we talk to residents about the changes that we implemented to maintain that zero per cent (in 2020 due to COVID-19), you could see that close to 60 per cent said those service level changes had a negative impact on them,” said Vincent.
The budget guidelines established in October aimed at a one per cent tax increase for 2021, but to reduce that would mean making significant changes to service levels, she said.
Phase 2 survey questions honed in on those potential changes, with some items being accepted by the majority of people and others hitting the cutting room floor – like red or green light cameras, paid parking in the downtown area, or reducing snow clearing on public pathways.
One of the items heard loud and clear was a call to reduce staff levels and salaries, said Vincent. It’s something the Town will consider moving forward, and she said with some service level reductions the number of staff may also change.
“The question the public was asking here was bang-on,” said Vincent. “It was saying – number one: are you delivering the right services, and number two: are you right-sized to deliver those services?”
There was also a call for a reduction in capital project spending, which is something she said the Town was already addressing. Last year there was $180 million worth of projects in the 10-year capital plan, and it has been reduced to $160 million, with $6 million of proposed expenditures for 2021.
“That again aligns with key messages we heard from the public,” said Vincent. “It also aligns with the decline in the growth rate the Town of Okotoks is facing.”
For the most part, respondents indicated support for reducing the number of operating hours for facilities like the municipal centre, Okotoks Art Gallery, Okotoks Museum and Archives and Okotoks Recreation Centre.
Proposed changes would ensure the municipal centre was only open during its most-commonly used hours, the art gallery and museum would maintain COVID hours at four days per week and the rec centre would be closed on 10 Sundays during the summer months, which is when its usage is lowest.
The community also supported a decrease in municipal enforcement hours, she said.
“All of those savings have been included in the budget based upon the feedback from the community,” said Vincent.
Some programs and services were proposed to be cut or reduced, such as operating the environmental education program by half and reducing the level of maintenance on green spaces, she said.
For the most part people indicated they would not be in favour of cutting back on Town-sponsored or Town-led events.
“This one was opposed and therefore we are not recommending any changes in relation to Town-sponsored community events,” said Vincent.
An increase to some user fees was supported by the public and while driving up the cost of recreation, or arts and culture rental rates was opposed, transit services was a different story, she said.
“That was supported,” said Vincent. “Therefore you see the base transit fee recommended for increase from $2.75 to $3.”
Overall, after having respondents consider the ways in which service levels and fees could be adjusted, they were asked whether they would support a property tax increase to avoid some of the reductions.
About 68 per cent of the public indicated an increase in the range of one to three per cent, said Vincent.