Councillor Tara McFadden and Marni Fedeyko weren't about to sit back and take what they perceived to be some disrespectful comments by fellow councillor Alex Reed during discussions on methods proposed to improve the budget process at the Oct. 3 committee-of-the-whole meeting.

Reed did clarify his comments later on in the meeting, but it did reflect on some tense moments in chambers during budget deliberations last year, and with the public engagement process.

Reed commented, "I think every community is struggling with trying to find the right tool for public engagement. The one that I hope we avoid is individual councillors having these kind of off-coffee meetings and coming back and then thinking they speak for the entire community. That I think is troublesome in terms of being able to move forward."

He said he much preferred a third-party survey.

"This is probably going to come across as negative, but during the last budget process we heard comments like this is the worst budget process ever, the sky is falling, and so on, and so I'm kind of shocked to see that these are three really minimal changes in terms of the process. I would say these are minor tweaks, so I'm surprised at least some of my colleagues were prepared not to vote on that budget because it was in such bad shape, and yet these recommendations are only minor tweaks to that."

More changes are coming, he was ensured, in future budget processes.

McFadden opened her comments with a direct response to Reed.

"I don't actually think it's appropriate to refer to fellow councillors that way. It's something I take great care not to do to others. In particular, saying the sky is falling about this budget, I never referenced that."

She continued, "If you actually look at the survey and report back from GFOA (Government Finance Officers Association), we scored very low on their rankings. So, if we could actually get that full report presented to council so you could see where those discrepancies are because if our budget had been so close to excellent, it wouldn't take us two years to qualify for that award again. So I could encourage you to go look at that report and see the options we did have for improvements on there."

She says she values feedback from the town survey, but also one-on-one meetings, residents, and social media conversations.

Marni Fedeyko also addressed Reed's comments.

"Councillor Reed, I don't ever question how you choose to engage with the constituents. I find it insulting--so I'm going to call my own point of order--it's insulting when you criticize the way that I choose to do it. It's really not about you or how I choose to interact with people who voted for me. It's really not your place. I don't come and shove the information down your throat. I get questions, I submit them to administration, and I get answers, which is my job, I feel, and it's really not your place to ever judge that."

Fedeyko also pushed for the release of the full GFOA report.

When he once again got the floor, Reed adjusted his comments.

"I have no problems with coffee meetings. What I was trying to suggest it be balanced against the survey results. Those two things provide a rich reflection of what's going on in the community, not one or the other."

Other councillors weighing in did not take issue with how any fellow councillors consulted with residents.

Meetings held over five months by the town's budget task force have resulted in some first steps in improving the town's budget process,

Before the town budget was submitted for review by the GFOA, last year many town councillors expressed discontent with how the budget was presented and wanted more details than what was being provided to help them with their deliberations. It led to the task force that included Mayor Jeff Genung, Marni Fedeyko, Patrick Wilson, CAO Mike Derricott, and other members of town administration.

Councillor Morgan Nagel told council he has come to regret how defensive he was when some councillors raised questions about last year's budget.

"I felt that the budget did not need further examination, and we should just place more faith in the process, and not ask so many difficult questions. I think over the last 12 months I have been proven wrong on that point, and I regret being so defensive about the beginning of this process.

"So I guess the first thing I'd like to say is I'm sorry for being wrong and also say thank you to the councillors who brought this forward. I think over the last 12 months I've really learned that we do really need to be critical of the budget and the next budget moving forward, I guess next month. I hope to see the actions of what has changed and see a better budget."

A report brought forward by Alvin Allim, interim chief financial officer, outlined three specific recommendations from the budget task force.

Public engagement will be enhanced to further the town's commitment to foster community involvement and understanding of the budget. Last year it is believed councillors were ill-prepared for the in-person public engagement sessions held at the SLS Centre. The administration wants to ensure the council is provided with comprehensive information.

Administration will lead the initial public engagement on the last weekend of October and any feedback will be shared as part of budget deliberations. Just prior to that, council will receive a detailed budget presentation on Oct. 24.

Full-time equivalent (FTE) counts will be provided for each organizational area of the town to provide a clear picture of how resources and personnel are distributed.

"By specifying FTE counts, we aim to ensure our budget reflects not only financial allocations but also the human resources necessary for effective initiative execution," states the overview. "This step enhances transparency and accountability within our budgeting process."

It also intends to provide graphics to enhance the quality and comprehensiveness of the budget.

"Specifically, we propose adding maps to each capital project to identify its location. Visual aids and cues, such as maps, can simplify complex information and provide a clear geographic context for capital projects."

Allim said the administration intends to actively consider the implementation of recommendations from GFOA.

The town received feedback and review from GFOA in July and anticipates these recommendations will gradually be incorporated into the budget process.

"By incorporating these recommendations and implementing visual enhancements, we aim to 'level-up' our budget documentation to the highest standards of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility."

Councillors sought some other specific information to be provided for budget deliberations.

Councillor McFadden seeks a clearer breakdown of council's budget, and a breakout of costs associated with being active in the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board and the Mid-Sized Cities Mayors Caucus.

She wants more details on costs listed as public relations in the last budget, and variances in department budgets from year-to-year, something that is expected to be included in the 2024 budget process.

She also sought clearer reporting on the use of reserves.

Besides echoing some of McFadden's comments, Fedeyko sought more details on staffing changes. She not only wants to see details on how many people are being brought on board but also the number of resignations, terminations, and retirements.

Mayor Jeff Genung focused his comments on making sure council receives a detailed presentation on the budget when it's handed to them, something he believes will give the town control of the process.

"I think what happens is that the public or the media pick up on a percentage or one big thing in there, and then we fight that narrative for a month until we actually hear the rationale from the professionals that are putting that draft together for us."

Councillor Patrick Wilson, one of the committee members, said it's a start, but he is looking forward to the town laying out more improvements in the future.

In the future, Wilson said he would like to see more details on department deliverables, more details on financial reporting for each department, and further enhancements to public engagement.

He stressed the task force will begin meeting again in January 2024. Public engagement is anticipated to begin in early 2024 so it can be given more weight in creating the 2025 budget.

"We don't think this process is closed. This is just the beginning of it. I can't wait to see what we have to say about our assessment in January 2024 and where we're going to still go with this. I don't think this is the endpoint for us."

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