Little time was spent discussing the feedback received from 312 people on the town budget by council during its July 11 committee-of-the-whole meeting.
Instead, a larger discussion ensued on how to engage the public, and obtain measurable and meaningful input while increasing civic literacy.
In what was the second year of conducting a pre-budget survey, one thing was clear. The majority of those responding don't want to see another tax increase like they've just paid. That was further fleshed out in the multitude of comments received.
For example, a question of how a person would allocate an additional $100 for additional town services was met with distaste by several, and included responses like this:
- "I don't have an extra dollar for any of this! I'm a senior on a fixed low income who has to go to the food bank now, where am I getting an extra $100? Town council is taxing me out of my home!"
- "Nowhere at this time due to the astronomical inflation. That $100 is needed to put food on the table and gas in the car. But you’ve already taken that $100 with the 10 per cent tax hike."
- "I do not have an extra $100/year. My income has been decreased by 75 per cent due to the economy and COVID-19."
Town councillor Marni Fedeyko believes it was clear what was being said.
"I think there is one mission and that's not to raise taxes again next year. It's very, very prominent in every single comment."
She said it was clear that in-person engagement needs to be at the forefront.
"Surveys aren't cutting it. We need to set up a robust public engagement where we're out in the community in the fall, when the budget is released, to at least make ourselves available. Whether or not there are 10 people or not, at least we're standing out there, and we're talking about it."
She says some of those responding to the survey found it difficult to answer the questions the way they wanted, and some felt some of the questions were skewed.
Councillor Alex Reed believes it isn't realistic to expect a zero per cent increase in taxes.
"I would publically say, that I think we/I made a mistake over the last couple of years by having taxes as low as they were," said Reed. "If they had been three per cent all the way along, we would not be in this kind of upheaval that we're seeing right now, and I'm betting 312 of these people would have been a little calmer. So to say no tax increase is just ridiculous."
He expressed uncertainty over the right tools for public consultation but believes conducting a survey and doing an in-person engagement in the fall doesn't fulfill that need.
"I struggle with that. I don't know what the best answer is. I hear what Marni is saying, but I don't know if that solves all the problems. You're getting to hear from a certain vocal number of individuals and I suspect part of those 312 will show up. But the rest of the community, I don't know how you get to those people. I think the survey is one part of that, but I don't know what the answer is in moving forward."
Corporate Services executive director Katherine Van Keimpama says town administration is examining ways for a more robust engagement, including the possibility of a focus group.
"The budget survey results are not the marching orders for putting the budgets together, but it is a lens that we are asking managers, directors, and senior managers to look at and say, what did you hear? Are there any nuggets that are in the survey results that should be taken into consideration?
"It's not the whole marching orders, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and say, oh, people are just mad about taxes, because I do believe there are nuggets of good information in here that while they don't totally direct the budget, they can actually help inform it."
What was also apparent was the lack of understanding of what exactly falls within the municipality's jurisdiction and what they can't control.
Town CAO Mike Derricott says the town is not doing a good enough job on civic literacy. He pointed to how 49 per cent of people said they were not receiving value for their tax dollars (25.4 per cent were satisfied, another 20 per cent were unsure, and the rest said it didn't matter).
"There were a lot of people in Cochrane that rated that quite poorly, but we know that Cochrane is literally the most efficient jurisdiction among comparable municipalities, and so we're not doing a good enough job of informing and educating our citizen's about the environment in which they exist, knowing that no one likes to pay taxes, period."
For the most part, those responding were satisfied with the level of service offered by town departments and would like to see decreases in some areas. Bucking that trend was the 50.5 per cent who wanted to see an increase in public safety services, such as more RCMP, bylaw officers and paramedics, a second fire hall, and 24-hour coverage by the urgent care centre.
Nearly 62 per cent of respondents wanted to see more done with parks and open spaces.
The survey ran from May 5 to 27 on the town's Let's Talk Cochrane page. Those ages 15 to 80-plus participated.
The number of people responding was down by 182.