City looks for feedback from its citizen panel on where budget cuts can be made. They are going in the right direction.

Budget 2017 ICON aaBy Pepper Parr

September 13, 2016



The finance department has crafted a budget and the bureaucrats are hoping it is passed and that they get the funds they feel they need to do their work.

One one wonders however if there isn’t a finance department that produces numbers and then a marketing department that goes out and sells the budget to the public.

Transparency and accountability were thought to mean that the bureaucrats “involve” the public and not work at trying to sell them a new “whiter than white” laundry detergent.


Taxpayers reviewing a budget – they got explanations but not much in the way of impact on the budget.

Burlington’s recent practice has been to create a budget based on input from each of the departments and once they have satisfied themselves that it works – they then hold public meetings and ask what the public thinks – but rarely, if ever, does the budget get changed.

Part of the responsibility for this is a public that isn’t prepared to do its part of the job.

There was a budget a number of years ago that was ready to go to a public meeting – and it snowed, heavy snow and the turn out was a miserable two people.  There were two additional people who had run for public office in the previous election – it was a sort of continued training for the job they wanted.

Budget public meeting - empty hall

Participants at a public budget meeting.

Budget public parent on stairs at ice rink

Residents at the hockey arena less than 50 yards away from the room the budget was being reviewed in.

Everyone thought no one showed up because of the weather – which seemed to be a reasonable conclusion.  However, right next door in the skating rink part of the Mainway Recreation Centre there were a couple of hundred parents taking in a hockey game their children were playing – weather didn’t keep them away.

What was evident was that the city budget had close to zero mind share.  Is it a matter that they just don’t care?  Check out the vigorous debate on the bike lanes that have been added to New Street and tell me that we have a public that doesn’t get passionate about issues.

What the city administration has failed to do is engage its citizens.  It is not an easy task – but watch how many people show up for the Remembrance Day parade- the crowd over flows into Brant Street.

Count the number of people who take part in the annual Terry Fox run and ask yourself why a group of citizens worked their buns off to have a monument to Terry Fox erected on a part of the city he travelled through 35 years ago.  Note too that the group experienced considerable difficulty with city hall in getting all the paper work done.

Terry Fox monument renderingThere is a missing link in the relationship between the citizens and the civil servants who are hired to run the city.  Any retailer learns very quickly to pay attention to what their customers want – city hall staff don’t appear to have picked up that same frame of mind.

This problem has plagued Burlington for some time.  In 2010 then Mayor Cam Jackson commissioned a report written by the late John Boich and former Mayor Walter Mulkewich.  They gave their report the title Shape Burlington.  Several of the senior people at city hall took exception to the findings of the report which was basically to say that city hall wasn’t listening.

Click on the blue line below – the full report is on there for anyone who wants to read the document – it is as relevant today as it was the day it was released.

Shape Burlington Report.
I would wager a good lunch that the current city manager has not read that report and that the Mayor doesn’t have copies in his office that he hands out to people.  At the time city council voted unanimously to adopt the report.

There have been some positive steps.  The city now has a panel of people who respond to surveys the city does about once a month.  The software used for the Insight Burlington surveys is excellent   Hard to tell yet if they respond to the data they get – but they are at least asking good questions.

It would be interesting to do an analysis of the questions asked; the answers given and how the city absorbed what they learned.  Given the current relationship between the Gazette and the senior levels of city hall don’t expect us to get any answers for you on that issue.

The Insight Burlington panel should be much larger than it is.  There are a number of people who have asked to be placed on the survey – but not everyone fits the model the city has.

It is vital that there be an appropriate balance in the makeup of the panel – so if there are enough people who are male, over 65 with a college education and own their home and that definition happens to describe you – that are going to decline your application.

insight-burlington-logoBut – don’t let anything deter you – if you are interested – click on the link – and give it a shot.  The city really needs people who are prepared to answer  the survey – they send out about one a month – they are usually quite short.

If you want to see if your demographics is needed for the Insight Burlington panel click on the link

In the most recent Insight Burlington survey they set out how much of a taxpayers money gets used for various services assuming a property is assessed at $417,645. The city asked which services should be cut back and by how much. They provided plenty of room for detailed responses.
It will be interesting to see what the panel participants had to say.



The chart above shows where the City allocates the revenue it receives from property taxes to the major categories of services it provides to residents (based on an average home assessed at $417,645).

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2 comments to City looks for feedback from its citizen panel on where budget cuts can be made. They are going in the right direction.

  • Stephen White

    I just completed the Insight Burlington survey. Five questions, very high level, and truly meaningless. Ask general questions and you’ll get general answers. The folks in the Finance Department at City Hall have a lot to learn about citizen engagement, empowerment and participation.

    Councillor Marianne Meed Ward, who actually does a fabulous job in communicating with her constituents, and is a journalist by training and education, should probably offer training on how to do it properly.

    I am not a financial expert, and I admit to no training or expertise in accounting or finance. What I do know however is that my taxes keep going up year over year in excess of the cost-of-living. Having lived in Burlington for several years I’ve noticed a marked deterioration in the quality of public services from both the City and the Region. I compare the quality of public services, the restoration of roads and urban infrastructure and the overall quality of facilities in Burlington to Oakville and I’m continually overwhelmed at the differences. Oakville is far superior on every dimension.

    Finally, if City officials didn’t like the stink that has been raised on this website, in the Burlington Post, or in the form of feedback to elected officials regarding the New Street bicycle diet just wait to hear the howl that will erupt if tax increases aren’t kept in check this year. A 2.8% increase just doesn’t cut it!!

    • John

      Stephen – Burlington provides some of the best resident engagement opportunities available anywhere.
      We may not always agree with the decisions made however, that doesn’t mean we weren’t engaged, consulted or provided opportunities to participate in those decisions.
      I have had the pleasure of dealing with most departments at city hall, several of our councilors and the mayor, with few exceptions they have been engaging and quick to provide information, enabling me to be informed and participate in the process.
      There is always room for improvement but I don’t believe the quality of public service has deteriorated.

      If the city is able to hold next years tax increase to 2.8%, why would that not cut it? I believe we are currently lookin an something closer to 4.8%.