When the Community Charter replaced the Municipal Act about a decade ago it replaced annual budgets with annual five-year financial plans.
The difference is that a budget talks about money in and money out without giving reasons, whereas a financial plan sets out what is to be accomplished first and then projects the money transactions to make it happen.
To provide the best services possible at the lowest cost possible would be an objective, but it would be meaningless. How could anyone measure progress with such an objective? A meaningful objective, for example, would be to improve energy efficiencies by 10 per cent within five years.
Such an objective would need policies concerning all uses of energy, from street lighting to air conditioning, from vehicle fleets to sewer systems. The objective would need a policy to establish baselines from which to measure the progress.
The implementation of the objective’s policies would be reflected in the plan’s financial projections.
Council would then be able to monitor progress, and citizens could hold their council accountable.
The first-year’s experience of this hypothetical policy might indicate that the energy efficiency target will be reached sooner than anticipated.
This would be an opportunity to review other municipal objectives and adjust their priorities. Or the experience might indicate that the targeted energy efficiencies will not likely be achieved.
Should the target be lowered from 10 to 6 percent? Should the target be retained, but more time allowed or more resources applied?
The latter option would have an impact on other objectives which would likely have to be revised.
A municipality does not need a fat catalogue of objectives. A modest basket of thoughtfully crafted objectives on key issues — the environment, recreation, culture, the economy, community relations, external relations (regional, provincial, federal) — would be sufficient to provide council with guidelines for decisions on issues arising between elections.
Objectives of this kind would provide not only council, but also proponents and opponents seeking council’s backing on difficult issues with parameters for their negotiations.
Examples of such issues include the acquisition and disposal of the co-op building, the My Mountain Co-op project, and the Enbridge pipeline project.
The real value of municipal objectives hinges on their public support. That support could be secured with a community relations objective calling for an annual plebiscite on municipal objectives.
Only objectives endorsed by a majority of voters would be included in the next five-year financial plan to be adopted by council.
The schedule would leave council 10 months to revise rejected objectives, introduce new objectives, or adjust objectives rendered irrelevant by changing circumstances.
The process would take a few rounds to mature, but it would improve council-community relations from the outset.
Council could submit such a process to a plebiscite held in conjunction with the coming general municipal election to determine if citizens are open to greater engagement in their own governance.
The cost would be negligible; one extra ballot paper and some extra time to count the ballots. If a majority were to support the proposal, the cost of annual plebiscites would be justified.
If a majority were to reject it, council would be assured that the community is happy to leave future major decisions to council’s discretion.
By way of an example, imagine how much money and effort would have been saved, how much political controversy, antagonism, and uncertainty could have been avoided, if the province had held a plebiscite on the HST before signing off on the deal with the federal government.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator now living in Terrace, BC.