Digby council holds first-ever public engagement process on town’s budget

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier jriley@digbycourier.ca
Published on June 21, 2014

Charlotte Sabean and 40 friends filled council chambers at Digby town hall on Dec. 16 to talk about taxes and more public engagement.

Jonathan Riley

Digby’s mayor, town council and staff listened to an hour of comments and questions about the draft of the 2014/15 operational budget for the town.

The town had presented the budget publicly on June 12 and council asked the public to come back five days later with questions and comments.

About 25 residents showed up Tuesday night, June 17 at the Digby Fire Hall, some of whom just listened, and several of whom had pointed questions about the town’s finances.

Charlotte Sabean not only attended but also emailed in a list of questions in advance, as the mayor had suggested people do.

Sabean asked specific questions about particular lines in the budget including the salaries of all town staff.

She also asked about the salaries paid to council ($14,000 for a councillor and $20,000 for the mayor).

The mayor pointed out that council had never had a raise, not even consumer price index, since the change from honorariums in 1999.

“I was thinking decrease,” said Sabean. “I go to all these meetings, for free, with a four-month old baby.”

At the end of the meeting, just before the mayor gave his closing remarks, Sabean asked to give a statement.

“We want council to look at this budget again and cut five per cent off it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to us so much where you find the cuts, but we need to pay less taxes not more.”

Sabean said later she was pleased with the public engagement process.

“I was happy they gave us the opportunity to ask questions,” she said. “It was a short time to review the budget though.

“I thought Ben did a great job at keeping everyone on topic and I was glad Tom replied to my email and everyone seemed to have the answers to the questions.

“I hope the council looks at our suggestions. We really hope they look at the budget closely. We feel there are ways to cut and do things more efficiently.”

Sabean says council does a lot of work and should be paid.

“We don't mind that they get paid for their service,” she said. “I think it does come down to communication again if people questions what they do. Tell them.  I think we are slowly moving in the right direction.” 

Another resident asked, for example, why the town doesn’t schedule its snowplow operators to work shifts to cut down on overtime.

Matthew Raymond, the town’s Director of Finance, says they have looked at that question– to have people on shifts all winter would require more staff.

“With wages of more than $900,000 and only $32,000 in overtime, we’ve done our best to manage it and I don’t know if there’s anymore we can save there,” he said.

Some town residents were shocked to learn that taxpayers pay for a staff Christmas party.

Paul Saulnier was another resident with several comments and questions, mostly about the town cutting expenses to reduce the tax burden.

Still he was happy about the public engagement process.

“I want to congratulate council for the street you’ve started to walk down tonight,” he said. “If you continue this and people see that our comments matter, I think over the years, more and more people will participate.”

The mayor says, for his part, he thought the public engagement process went well and council does intend to continue with it.

“Over the next two yeas, we will be getting the budget done earlier, and the public engagement will be earlier and I look forward to hearing more from people as we move forward.”

The mayor says staff made notes of all the comments and the councillors were all present to hear.

“Now we will take that information into our deliberations on June 30,” he said.

He said the public is welcome to attend and listen to the meeting Monday, June 30 at the townhall at 6 p.m. but the meeting is for council to discuss the budget and possibly vote to approve it.

He said if any of the councillors want changes made or have suggestions, that meeting is the time to bring them up.

Council has also tentatively scheduled July 7 as an extra day for budget deliberations if necessary.

The mayor says council is hoping to have the budget approved by mid-July at the latest.