By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
If you’ve always wanted the chance to set a municipal budget that reflects the priorities that matter most to you, Northumberland County’s Balancing Act budget-simulation tool will give you that chance.
Director of Finance Glenn Dees said at the July county council meeting that public input has always been a vital part of the annual budget process, but it hasn’t been easy to get. Open houses draw few visitors, and even on-line surveys are only slightly more successful.
Balancing Act gives anyone who wants to try it a chance to log on (on computer or on conventional devices) between Aug. 3 and 31 to do some theoretic tinkering with the draft budget that has been drawn up to accommodate the 1.5% target levy increase.
Director of Information Technology Tony Paulic walked council through the process and how it can operate as both a public-education tool and – since every step offers the opportunity to submit a comment – an input-gathering exercise.
A green balanced-budget banner runs across the top of the page, which turns red when a change (such as the cost of a service enhancement) produces a deficit (along with a display of the deficit amount). It stays green when a change (such as revenues from a hike to user fees) produces a surplus.
Users can give each change more consideration by clicking on “information” icons that explain services in greater detail – including specifics of the benefits or negative impacts that may result from changes made.
Give it some thought, make your best decisions and push the Submit button. That takes you to an exit page where you can comment on potentially adding hospital funding and provide some demographic information.
Director of Communications Kate Campbell provided some details of a multi-channel communications campaign with which they will publicize the initiative.
“Very exciting,” Warden Bob Crate commented.
“It gives people a hands-on chance to see what happens when you have an idea.”
Brighton Councillor Brian Ostrander wondered if such a tool might be viable for a municipality to use. Dees said municipal treasurers are probably aware of it, but the county had elected to try it as a pilot project this year. After that, he said, “member municipalities may want to utilize it as well.”
Alnwick-Haldimand Councillor Gail Latchford asked about the cost. She was told it was just under $5,000, with almost $1,000 more for technical support in setting it up – this does not take into account staff time, Dees added, which is a considerable amount during the set-up process.
“If it goes well and we continue, there would be on-going annual costs to maintain licensing for using it,” he continued.
“I am thinking the cost of it justifies doing it, and it’s good to know what that is,” Latchford commented.
“I think it is indicative of council wanting to be transparent, educating our public and consulting with the public, particularly in respect to the budget,” Dees stated.