Martin Hayward can recall a time, not all that long ago, where a public meeting on the City of London budget drew more empty chairs than it did people.
And so Hayward, London’s chief financial officer, city treasurer and managing director of corporate services, was quite pleased by the turnout for the first Build a Budget workshop of the season. Taking place on Jan. 14, the workshop drew approximately 70 people to at Goodwill Industries for a discussion of all things budget-related.
“I remember setting up public participation meetings and have one person show up. So, to see 50 or 60 people show up for a meeting on a very cold night, it is encouraging,” Hayward said. “It's easy to complain . . . but if you have an understanding of what is happening and still say, ‘Well how about this?’ then you're becoming part of the solution.”
The Build a Budget session, which repeats on Saturday, Jan. 17, starting at 10 a.m., back at Goodwill Industries, features a pair of short — OK, maybe not short enough — formal presentations that are followed by an informal social opportunity. While city staff use the formal session to lay out budget details, the informal discussions see participants mingle at a series of stations where they discuss various budget aspects with city staff.
It is a formula that, entering its third year, Hayward said works well because of that mixed approach.
“People like that opportunity to speak with someone face-to-face, ask questions, get answers directly,” Hayward said. “Every year I would say the level of questions from people are increasing. I think the knowledge level is increasing for the people who are interested. Any opportunity we get to explain the budget process to the public I think helps.”
Jeremy Bird came out to Build a Budget for the third straight year because he said he is interested in how the city is going to spend its money. He is also curious about the plans the city has for moving forward.
“It is a good event; it isn’t as boring as people might think it would be. I have come to all of them and have learned some good stuff,” Bird said.
One of the new discussions to be had at this year’s session surrounds the city’s shift next year to multi-year budgeting. That system, which is tied to the new strategic plan that council is currently working on, will allow for staff to take a much longer term look at city finances.
It is an approach Bird said only makes sense.
“I am kind of excited for multi-year budgeting. It would save councillors a lot of time and free them up to do other things besides finagle budgets every year,” Bird said. “I don’t look at my life one year at a time, so why would a huge city with a billion-plus budget do that?”
Tammy Lee Marche was another participant in the Wednesday evening session. While she is interested in the budget process by itself, March also came out because she is launching a new livestream series on local politics, #LdnPoli.
One of the messages she hopes people will get from these sessions is that knowledge is important.
“I think it is really important for the city to get community feedback. It would be nice if more people came out,” Marche said. “They do a good job, for the most part, in explaining the budget. Then you can be informed and have your say. The more knowledge we have, the more informed we are.”
Mayor Matt Brown said he was pleased by the turnout for Build a Budget. Each year, Brown said, an effort is made to make the budget process more interactive.
With that in mind, Brown said another way people can get involved is by utilizing the city’s online tool at www.buildabudget.ca.
Recent years saw considerable public engagement around the budget because of a council many London residents felt had lost touch with the community.
While some may be concerned about less public engagement because of increased trust of this new council, Hayward would not be among them.
“I do see that level of engagement continuing. This council is more engaged in terms of social media so I think there is instant feedback they are getting from the public, which they bring into the whole mix,” Hayward said. “I think there are differences, but the engagement will remain the same, if not greater.”