My Response to Budget Speaks

I sent the following to the Citizens Academy, Tobi Nussbaum, Catherine McKenney, Jeff Leiper, Mathieu Fleury, and David Chernushenko.

I attended Tuesday night’s “Budget Speaks” event organized by Ottawa city councillors and the Citizens Academy. I was disappointed by what I saw:

1. participants fit into a narrow demographic: white, affluent, and old. Many participants seemed to have a very similar perspective that the organizers failed to challenge,

2. organizers advocated raising taxes throughout the event, ignoring the effect of increasing property assessments by MPAC,

3. participants weren’t given enough information to make useful decisions,

4. there weren’t enough materials at each table.

We participants suffered a great deal of group think, and the organizers didn’t challenge it. Two anecdotes sum it up:

- during the budgetary session, I suggested that user fees on recreational facilities should be raised. A member of our group said that many low-income families can’t afford the fees now, and that raising them would make city services unavailable to them. When one of the organizers suggested the same thing later, the room supported her suggestion wholeheartedly. This leads me to believe that we participants were making uninformed decisions.

- groups were asked to choose the top three and bottom three spending priorities for the city. One of the participants who had seen the rankings by all of the groups mentioned that they were all very similar. That suggests that the participants aren’t being provided with real options, or all of the participants share a very similar perspective.

Throughout the event, the organizers mentioned that the city could raise taxes. At one point, one of the organizers stated that the property taxes could go up by a single percent, and that would only cost home owners around $64 — without considering the effect of the MPAC adjustment. The organizers didn’t put nearly as much energy into asking what the city could do to lower expenses. As someone who thinks we should consider lowering expenses, I felt that my opinion was unwelcome. That didn’t fit with the inclusive atmosphere the organizers said they wanted to promote at the start of the evening.

The organizers asked us to rank the city’s budgetary priorities. When I asked an organizer to explain one of the priorities, she responded that she had just gotten it from the city website and didn’t know what it meant.

The table I sat at only had one copy of a number of crucial sheets. The densely typed sheets explained where the city spends its money. With five participants at the table, only a few got to read the sheet completely. It was hard to discuss issues not all of us could read about.

I wholeheartedly support participatory budgeting. And I agree with most of the ideas espoused by the organizers and my fellow participants. But participatory budgeting should do more than confirm our biases. If these events are going to be anything more than group think, the organizers must:

a. promote the event in circles that have differing points of view than the organizers,

b. provide each participant with enough information to evaluate items in the budget,

c. consider budget options that they may not agree with, and tell participants why the budget is in its current form.

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