Budget meetings at city hall can be a bit of a snoozefest.
But council chambers was packed Tuesday night — for the second year in a row.
Even the youth voice was represented as eight-year-old Lincoln Froese made an impressive plea to council to support the once glorious Hope Slough in the budget.
Chilliwack council was supposed to vote on the 2016 budget and financial plan, after holding a public information meeting, and listening to the views of the public.
Instead, in a surprise move led by Coun. Sam Waddington and Coun. Jason Lum, they convinced the rest of council to refer the financial plan back to staff for some retooling.
“I intend to honour that process,” Coun. Waddington said about the high level of engagement. “I’m not comfortable passing the budget,” without altering it, if need be, to reflect the surge of public involvement and interest in the process.
“Maybe there are things we can do in the interim,” he said.
All six councillors voted to bring the budget and financial plan bylaw back again for consideration in two weeks. In the interim, they may tweak the details if it’s decided that input or ideas from the public should be reflected or incorporated into the budget.
Several suggestions came out of the public budget meeting Tuesday such as more RCMP, bike lanes, and trails, as well as heritage protection, revitalization of the Hope Slough and more.
The huge level of public interest at the annual budget meeting was called “unprecedented” by one councillor, and a brand-new online “engagement tool” garnered 92 responses from the public.
The user-friendly online “engagement tool” asked citizens a series of budget-related questions to gauge priorities, to which they could indicate which ones they were willing to pay the same taxes for, or higher.
About 10 people spoke at the podium, while another four sent written submissions.
First up to the mike, first and second, were perennial budget commentators Bryden Nelmes and Gary Raddysh.
Nelmes was generally supportive of the city’s financial plans, but had some ideas to improve the online engagement tool.
“I found the engagement tool really easy to use,” he said, adding that if someone with his technical skills can do it, “anyone can.”
But it should go live on the website earlier in the budget process, rather than just before council votes on it, so people can offer useful feedback on the “front end” of it, rather than than “back end.”
Nelmes suggested adding the option of allowing those using the engagement tool to say they wanted to pay “lower” taxes, instead of the “same” amount, or “higher.”
He praised the long-term plan for the Rail Trail, predicting it will be “amazing,” and later said he was happy money was going to look at the Hope Slough.
Raddysh told city council that he’d come before them on a “mission of discovery and truth.”
“Why am I here? I’ve come to ask city council to reconsider its 1.89 per cent tax increase, and offer one year of zero per cent tax.”
He has put forth the exact same request at budget time for several years running. He advised council “to put the wishlist on hold, and hunker down,” in fiscal restraint.
“In the past I have not convinced this council to try any of my suggestions,” he lamented. “I often think I should give up, but I come here thinking that there must be others out there who see what I see.”
Eight-year-old Lincoln Froese asked council to “consider supporting” the Hope River in the city budget, adding that not long ago, people used to be able to swim in it, and revel in its beauty.
“And now this waterway is even just called ‘the Hope Slough.’
“This is an area important to all residents of Chilliwack, led by me and my brothers, have started a campaign called SOS – Save Our Slough.”
He invited everyone to check out their Facebook page, and to “follow the movement” to see how Chilliwack feels about “this important” waterway.
“Our future is in your hands,” he concluded.
He was told by Mayor Sharon Gaetz that council had done some studies on what it would take to revitalize the slough, and the cost estimates “seemed beyond” what council could afford. But further studies are underway, said staff, and at one point there were approvals for clearing the Rosedale section.
Rene Crawshaw had several points to make about the Town Dike plan, including questioning the $199,000 budgeted for the predesign phase.
“I don’t think it’s being well spent,” he said about those funds.
The idea of damming a Class A stream was “not a well thought out solution,” and wondered if the city was going to be forced to expropriate land to raise the dike. He was told they would not.
His other main concern was the lack of protection of local First Nations under the Town Dike plan.
“That might have been acceptable in the 1930s, but it is 2016,” he said.
Mayor Gaetz emphasized more than once, that they were “in consultations,” with the local First Nations.
Janice Balakshin focused on how to make Chilliwack a cycling destination for the entire region by improving bike lanes.
“The real game changer is segregated lanes,” she said, adding that she travels by bike everywhere she goes.
“There’s a huge groundswell of interest in cycling.”
Many want to see improvements to bike lanes, she said, mentioning support by Couns. Lum and Waddington.
“Someday we could have the designation of being the most cycling friendly small city in Canada,” Balakshin said.
Marc Greidanus made a quick pitch for more funding for parks and trails, while thanking council for the support shown to date in creating the Community Forest Park off Allan Road.
He agreed there really is a “buzz” in Chilliwack, with a new-found, or rediscovered focus on outdoor recreation.
Mayor Gaetz praised his passion for trails, and the “sweat equity” put in by Chilliwack Parks Society, and for starting to create a network of trails in the Eastern Hillsides.
Laura Reid of Heritage Chilliwack Society took the mike to request funding allocation to implement a “community heritage commission,” in recognition of Heritage Week, and to recognize community heritage “conservation areas.”
Carolyn Keith-Gratton took the position that there were too few firefighters, police and first responders in the budget.
Cameron Hull asked about policing resources, and also if Chilliwack had “any funds in the budget, or desire” to designate the former Imperial Theatre building, just east of Five Corners on Yale Road east.
“It was Chilliwack’s very first theatre,” he said, “long before The Paramount theatre existed.”
He was told by the mayor there’d been no discussions to date about that topic.
Rolf Van Nuys of Abbotsford asked if the rumour were true that Chilliwack’s bylaws and fines “were arbitrary and negotiable,” before stating that council had “a mess” on its hands with the Local Harvest Market situation, referring to the longstanding struggle to bring them into full compliance with building permit, bylaws and licensing regulations.
Coun. Waddington said it was great to see so many residents show up, adding the input council received was “as varied as our community.”
Given all the input, feedback and submissions about the budget, “there’s a lot to chew on,” he said.
Coun. Chuck Stam said “truthfully” the budget hearing process was 365 days a year, not just one night.
He said he saw the “wisdom” of referring the budget back to staff, before they rush to adopt it.
Coun. Lum said he wanted to see the cost implications for “delineated bike lanes,” and was told by staff they expected to come up with costs “in the not too distant future.”
While he was “certainly excited” to see support for an “aggressive increase” of two new uniformed RCMP officers, he still wondered if two was enough.
Coun. Chris Kloot also said he wondered if two additional police officers was enough, and offered support for Agri Watch efforts.
He praised the eight-year-old advocate of the Hope Slough.
“I want to thank Lincoln. I grew up swimming in that slough,” adding later, he hoped council could look at some options.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz said she appreciated an early comment about how important it was to have a “balance of opinions” and a range of views, and that it was impossible to make everyone happy.
“There are varied opinions about where and when we should put our money,” she added, but that they would always be “respectful.”