By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – A number of Morinville residents braved the chill and poor road conditions Monday night to come out for the first of two community open houses on the 2012 Morinville budget. Although ratepayers have had the opportunity to attend budget open houses in previous years, council decided to make the open house an integral part of the budget process this year. In previous years when the budget came before council the budget was balanced and done. This year, however, council voted on first reading of an unbalanced budget, one the community had the opportunity to shape through Monday’s open house and a second scheduled for Wednesday night between 6 and 8 p.m.
Morinville Mayor Lloyd Bertschi said he was pleased with Monday night’s turnout. “We’ve had more people here tonight than we’ve had in the last three years combined,” he said midway through the two-hour event, adding the change in concept seems to have worked for increasing public engagement. The mayor said he received some suggestions from the public that council should arrange some formal time where people could speak to council on their budgetary thoughts collectively rather than one to one as was the format for Monday night’s open house. It is something the mayor said council will try to incorporate into the next two meetings as the budget is debated on its way to third and final reading.
Different concerns on process and projects
Those who attended Monday night’s budget open house had a variety of concerns and opinions on the process and what council and administration are proposing to spend tax dollars on in 2012.
For local businessman Guy Meunier Monday night’s open house was an opportunity to express his concerns about the dual nature of Highway 642 / 100 Avenue and the effect on businesses operating on Main Street. Morinville is looking to spend $75,000 on a functional plan for Highway 642, continuing the work begun in 2011 that seeks to find a balance between a road that is both a provincial arterial highway and half of Morinville’s downtown core. Meunier said he was glad for the opportunity to express his concerns and to be heard. “I’m just looking at the long-range planning,” he said. “My concern is 100 Avenue and how that’s going to develop in the future.”
Morinville resident Linda Lyons was somewhat disappointed with the format of the open house. “I thought it was going to be more of a group [session] where council would ask us specific questions about the projects,” she said, noting she anticipated a microphone where residents’ concerns could be expressed to council. “I thought we could make presentations. I’m not fond of the mix and mingle. I will be e-mailing specific questions to the council.”
After looking at the proposed budget, projects and initiatives, which were outlined on display boards and available as take-home packages, Lyons expressed her concern with the Town’s definition of reserves and the amount being spent on contracted services. The proposed budget calls for $1.3 million in contracted services spending in 2012. “Where it says engineering design items -what is it for?” she asked. “What is the long-term benefit to the tax payer? What are we going to see or is that going to sit on somebody’s desk for two or three years and then it will no longer be valid?”
Lyons also expressed concern about Town staffing. The proposed budget calls for $5.2 million in wages. “They have not recruited to the full extent of their 11 new positions,” she said in reference to the positions voted on and approved in the 2011 budget. “So what will that look like if they do?”
Lyons was not the only one at Monday night’s open house who expressed concern with how much Morinville is paying out in wages. Paul O’Dea questioned the correlation between Morinville’s population and the wages being paid out by the municipality. “I’m wondering if for a town of 8,504 persons if we require $5.2 million is staffing,” he said. “It’s just a question I’d like to pursue. Are the staffing levels in Morinville below average, average or above average when compared to other communities?” O’Dea said he’d like to see council use a third party accounting or auditing firm to provide some objective data on Morinville’s staffing level to help determine where the community stands.
Like Lyons, O’Dea said he’d like to have had the opportunity to speak and ask questions of council collectively. “On the process, I think it would be helpful if the citizens had an opportunity to present to council, and be able to ask questions if they felt it necessary to speak to an issue like staffing levels and efficiencies,” he said, noting he’d like the opportunity for people to be able to give a short five- or six-minute presentation with observations. “This process is a good start but I don’t think it is a complete process.”
Another opportunity to be heard
The second open house will take place Wednesday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Morinville Community Cultural Centre. The 2012 budget and projects are also available online.
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