COMMENT and ANALYSIS: The Final Word on Rossland's Budge the Budget DemocracySTORM

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
April 18th, 2013

Well, Rossland, it’s been a while coming: the final outcome of the “DemocracySTORM” on ways YOU felt our city should budge its budget.

We asked three questions:


1) What should the City of Rossland spend MORE money on?

2) What should the City of Rossland spend LESS money on?

3) What other key points should council consider before passing the budget?


At first I’d been holding out on reporting the results until council began budget discussions, which I presumed would be in March just as soon as CAO Cecile Arnott returned from her two month vacation.


But here we are past mid-April, and there’s still nothing on the agenda, even as the May 15 municipal budget deadline fast approaches. It begs the question: will council have time to think outside the box and try some innovative approaches to spending our taxes?


I hardly think so.


Let’s leave this lackadaisy aside for now as we turn our attention to the excellent ideas generated by the DemocracySTORM analysis, summarized below.


To recap, we used software generously supplied for free by THOUGHTStream, a Rossland-based business that uses an innovative online approach to achieve detailed feedback and find broad agreement on open-ended questions. THOUGHTStream is typically used by schools and school districts for in-depth public consultations.


It began in December with an email to about 900 folks in the Telegraph database in which we asked for answers to the three questions. About 68 people “opted out,” usually because they were non-residents, but also because they felt they had no ideas to offer. On the other hand, 93 people came back with a whole range of ideas that I then categorized into about 50 ideas per question.


These hundreds of ideas, accompanied by detailed comments elaborating each one, were sent back out in another mass email in February. This time  145 people jumped on board to assign stars to their favourite ideas, while 129 people opted out for similar reasons as the first time.


Now, below, we have the top-ranked ideas as chosen by these 145 respondents.


If you want the real meal deal, the dirty nitty gritty, the whole hog and the full enchilada, it’s as simple as downloading the pdf documents attached at the bottom of this article, as provided by THOUGHTStream. The first is a brief overview of all three questions, and the other three articles cover every single comment and vote made on each of the three questions.


MORE money please!


It’s pretty clear, and possibly because it’s topical, the top pick for greater spending was “Keep K-12 schools in Rossland.” Some 86 of the 145 respondents chose this, assigning an average of 3 of their 20 stars.


Next came “trails and parks,” garnering an average of 2 stars from 64 respondents.


“Review staff pay scales and compare to similar municipalities” was tagged by 53 people, as was “broadband internet access.”


More than 40 people voted for “establishing proper development charges for developers,” “pay down debt,” “recycling, compost, and garbage facilities,” “replace ageing sewage and water infrastructure,” “sustainability initiatives that fit the Official Community Plan,” “community groups in arts, culture, recreation, and environment,” and “combining some services at a regional level.”


My personal favourite, “promote growing food in town,” ranked thirteenth overall, with 34 people giving it an average of 1.76 stars.


Others were chosen by fewer people, but received lots of stars to push them up in the rankings. For example, “amalgamating Lower Columbia municipalities” received an average of 2.5 stars from 30 people, putting it 9th overall.


Some ideas were decidedly unpopular. For all the attention paid to parking during the Columbia-Washington debates, “more parking” ranked dead last, with only three people tagging it with one or two stars.


Only 16 people were interested in a “dog park and doggie bag dispensers.” Only 7 people wanted more “flowers and manicured landscapes.”


Only 8 people thought councillors should get a pay increase to incentivize more candidates—they’re currently paid about $5000 per year, and the mayor receives $11,000.


Only 10 people voted in favour of the “spend more on nothing—we need to spend less” idea.


LESS money here, make the cuts hard!


Topping the charts, 82 respondents gave an average of two of their 20 stars to the idea that “Tracey Butler’s salary” should be reduced, and another two stars to the idea that the “CAO’s salary” be cut. Before benefits, Deputy CAO Butler earns about $120,000, and CAO Cecile Arnott receives about $160,000.


Not far behind, 75 respondents gave an average of two stars to reduce support for “large developers.”


Sixty-five people gave another two stars to reduce “salaries and benefits for administrators and management in general.”


Public works’ “wages, benefits, overtime, and staffing levels” were the next to feel the cutting gaze of residents, with 44 respondents assigning an average of 1.7 stars.


Other ideas receiving more than 40 people’s votes included “consulting fees for ideas and studies,” “legal fees fighting their own citizens,” the “Trail Aquatic Centre”, and “reduce office staff” at City Hall.


Although many people suggested cuts to community groups, these ideas didn’t get much traction. Only 12 people wanted any cuts to trail development, about 15 people wanted to end tax waivers, and about the same number set their aim on the Sustainability Commission, the museum, Tourism Rossland, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Lion’s Campground. Cuts to “community groups and programs in general” only picked up two people’s votes.


An across-the-board cut of “X per cent”—suggestions of 5 or 10 per cent were received—only garnered votes from 9 people, although these people felt strongly that it was the right solution, giving almost two stars on average.


Finally, as the city still withholds information on the final cost of last year’s downtown renovations, only four people suggested cuts to “downtown renovations.”


Big ideas council should debate


Topping the list yet again was “keep the schools in Rossland,” with 73 people giving 2.5 stars on average.


“Revisit staff contracts” was right behind, followed by “rescind the delegation bylaw and pass a revised one.”


Note: The delegation bylaw as it stands gives the CAO broad spending and decision-making power, and is considered a major factor in how former building inspector Jason Ward managed to give his own company nearly $200,000 in contracts during the arena renovations, and was then quietly let go a year later to become ISL Engineering’s project manager for the $6 million plus downtown renovations last summer. Council assigned Coun. Tim Thatcher, Coun. Cary Fisher, and Coun. Jody Blomme to review the bylaw, but the committee has yet to meet.


“Think regional” got broad support, with “find ways to share the district industrial tax base,” and “look for services that can be provided region-wide” each receiving about two stars from about 54 people.


Other “think regional” ideas received similar support, including “eliminate the municipal building inspector and use RDKB’s” and “merge the pool of local government employees and equipment across the region.”


Forty-eight people gave more than two stars on average for a simple statement: “Really, the wages paid at City Hall are nuts!”


Legal and democratic issues also topped the list. “Seek legal advice (e.g. for the CAO’s contract) rather than rely on advice from city employees” got 51 people’s votes. “Focus on accountability, transparency, and communication with citizens” was important to 45 people.


The only other issue with more than 40 people’s support was spending “tourism dollars targeted to Rossland’s history and heritage, not just sports.” 


Ranked just above this due to a higher star count, but with only 39 people’s vote, was “support community volunteerism and committees.”


The final word (or rant)


We all hope council starts to debate the budget soon, seeing as they only have three weeks left to make a whack of decisions about how millions get spent—not to mention figuring out how to pay for over-budget downtown renovations after botching the debt-approval process. But when they do get around to it, let’s hope they take some of your advice, above, to heart.


Even better, perhaps next year the CAO will actually be around for this critical budget time of year and can spearhead something similar to what we’ve pulled off here, but this time using the city’s email database. 


We all know that Coun. Kathy Wallace thinks Telegraph readers—to whom this survey was restricted, since we don’t have anyone else’s emails—do not represent Rossland’s majority, so how can we expect her to take advice from 145 Telegraph readers out of the 900-plus we contacted on our email list?


We can’t.


Frankly, if the city were actually interested in Rosslander input, they could have easily supplied us with the city email list when our DemocracySTORM began, just like Coun. Kathy Moore suggested at the time!


But, while council can now complain that our results are not necessarily representative, I think we are certainly within our rights to complain that their seven points of view have yet to be informed by any process whatsoever.


On hearing about a grassroots democracy campaign to gain input into the most important decision council makes all year, don’t you think a true representative would get on board and say, ‘Yes!’ and ‘How can we help get as many people involved as possible to give their input?’


Alas, it’s bumbling amateurs around the table at City Hall, paying a new CAO $160,000 to not be around for two months during budget time with a contract that wasn’t vetted by a third-party lawyer, negotiating downtown reno costs after the fact,  and leaving themselves less than a month to tackle these enormous budget issues.


Meh, I say, meh!

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