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City council sharpens pencils for budget deliberations

Penticton is hoping residents bring their pencils for three days of budget deliberations — because staff and council are inviting ideas from the public on how to erase a deficit.

Beginning today (Friday), City Hall plays host to three full days of presentations from various department heads on the challenges they face and successes they’ve had in putting together the 2012 budget.

Mayor Dan Ashton said the city wants to open up the process to allow everyday people the chance to weigh in on budget decisions.

“What is being contemplated right now is, instead of just having question periods at the end, we’re going to open it up to the public during the process,” he said, adding just before each break they want to invite the public to comment. “We’re going to have public input periods in there where people can be asking questions.”

And residents are allowed more than just to pose a question or two. Ashton’s hoping they have suggestions.

“We’re absolutely wide open to ideas, not only council, but also staff,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to come forward with their recommendations. It’s their money. I can’t sum it up any better than that; it belongs to the people of Penticton. So we would love to be hearing from them.”

The process has been changed this year to be more inclusive of the public: posting budget documents online department by department so people can track cost pressures and spending cuts.

“The budget layout has changed dramatically,” he said, adding the documents are laid out in a readable format “rather than just pages and pages of numbers and columns that you would get on a spreadsheet program.”

He said the attempt is at more inclusivity, in line with how the preliminary budget was drafted. More than 40 staff  — including managers and rank-and-file staffers — spent five days going over the numbers for all departments so they could see potential overlaps.

Ashton said the process has been fruitful: initial deficit projections were trimmed by $800,000 — a 33.3 per cent decrease. That leaves council to mull over a $1.598 million projected deficit, which Ashton said residents should “write that in pencil.

“I’m absolutely confident that the projected deficit at this point in time will decrease substantially,” he said.

With additional scrutiny by staff, council and the public, he said the difference will be made up. Looking at early budget estimates, staff have informally proposed five items that could address the makeup: utilize the interest stabilization reserve ($400,000), reduce the equipment depreciation transfer ($300,000), use between $500,000 and $800,000 of the 2011 budget surplus, taxation or a combination of all the above.

“I can assure you that there will be substantial changes in that deficit,” Ashton said.

The budget discussions will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. on Friday in council chambers, which is on the second floor of City Hall. Departments are anticipated to present their information in this order: corporate administration; human resources; information technology; RCMP; operations including public works, parks, water and sewer; recreation, facilities and museum; and finance.

Monday is booked again for all-day discussions involving the following departments: development services; fire protection; revenues and fiscal services; operations; engineering, design, water and sewer plants; and the electric utility. Tuesday’s discussions will surround capital funds from 8:30 a.m. to noon, and library and civic grants from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

Each department submission and their estimated time of discussion can be found on the city’s website at www.penticton.ca.

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