This week, all current councillors are away at Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Toronto so Express reporter Erin Fawcett has asked former Councillor Vesna Higham questions regarding what she believes will be the big election issues this year.
"Plenty of election issues will naturally rise to the surface because of pragmatism or high visibility in the community, like capital project spending, snow-removal, outdoor public ban on smoking, etcetera," said Higham. "One issue that is less visible, but far more significant in terms of bottom-line citizen impact, is the budget process. The need rigorously to debate this single issue, at City Hall and in public forums, cannot be overstated."
She added the City has changed and evolved dramatically since she first moved to town about 16 years ago.
"We are the third largest city in the province, yet our budget process hasn't really changed in nearly two decades," said Higham. "We still employ the traditional process of starting with last year's figure and asking for specific increases over and above that base level. Council reviews the many and pressing additional funding requests, but never sees or reviews the previous year's 'base budget'."
She added councils in each of the five largest Alberta cities have access to and regularly review at least a summary of each department's base budget, except in Red Deer.
"We've grown up as a city, and we need a budget process that reflects our current needs," said Higham. "We speak often of Council setting service levels – of council steering, while administration rows – when in reality, administration determines most of these service levels in their base budgets."
She added she believes in order for council to effect meaningful oversight, to cut or expand service levels, or to reflect community priorities, council needs to know where the money is being spent in each department.
"What's working and what's not," said Higham. "Edmonton's recently gone to just such a process and it's been a heralded success. Their new framework allows elected officials to consult with the public and evaluate department operations, before deciding whether to continue with, adjust or cut civic services."
She added City Manager Craig Curtis and Mayor Morris Flewwelling have already taken several steps towards more meaningful oversight by involving councillors on the front end of agenda items before they're debated in chambers.
"It would be a natural progression to overhaul the budget process along the same lines to increase oversight, transparency and fiscal responsibility in our elected officials. It might even help us stay away from those double digit tax increases that, until this year, have plagued our City," said Higham.