Public pitches in on tough fiscal questions

Public pitches in on tough fiscal questions
Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger and his team devised an interactive way to engage the public in budget discussions. Lego blocks were arranged in programs, which participants could take and re-allocate to different programs.Photo: Sarah Ladik.

Members of the NWT department of Finance are touring the territory seeking the public’s opinion on the upcoming budget. Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger said the initiative’s $100,000 price tag is worth it to hear what taxpaying citizens have to say.

“We could just stay in Yellowknife in office buildings and the legislature, but I am of the opinion that every community should have a place at the table,” he said Tuesday night in Fort Smith.

Consultations were held in Inuvik Sept. 17, Norman Wells Sept. 18, Fort Simpson Sept. 19, Fort Smith Sept 24, Hay River Sept. 25 and Behchoko Oct. 1. The last meeting will be held in Yellowknife Oct. 23.

This year’s budget discussions emerge from the context of the 2008 recession, said Miltenberger. As such, the territory is in for another year of belt-tightening, despite the fact that government wants to protect staff and services.

“We still have to tighten our budget,” he said.

According to an information sheet provided at the consultations, projected revenue growth for the coming years is just over two per cent per year, compared to an average of five per cent per year since 1999. This means that, in order to continue creating a surplus in the day-to-day operations of government, spending must be constrained by the same growth, leaving no room for new programs.

According to Sandy Kalgutkar, deputy secretary to the financial manager of the board, the general reaction so far has been a desire for increased spending on prevention as opposed to treatment and punishment, whether in basic education, new versus existing infrastructure or social programming in communities.

That was certainly the theme in Fort Smith on Sept. 24, with representatives from the Health Centre wanting funding to focus on preventative schemes within the health portfolio and Aurora College asking that money be reallocated from adult education programs to basic education to reduce the number of students attending the college for academic upgrading.

“There’s a duplication of services in basic education and adult and continuing education,” said Margaret Dumkee, program head of business administration at the college’s Thebacha Campus.

Despite the overall desire to increase efficiency within departments and focus on social programs instead of correctional facilities and emergency medical care, regional differences did crop up.

Kalgutkar indicated that people attending consultations in Norman Wells and Inuvik were more concerned with the role of regulatory boards impeding economic development than people in the territory’s south, while Hay River Mayor Ken Latour said the concerns of businesses were brought to the forefront at consultations there.

“Something that came up was taking money away and not allocating it to other government programs, but putting it back into people’s pockets so that they can make decisions on how that money is spent,” Latour said.

Overall, feelings about the consultation process itself were mixed. Latour said he believes it was very productive. “To some degree, it’s about educating the general public about how the GNWT makes these decisions. The idea of taking this kind of exercise on the road is a great way to get the public involved and educate them about how government spending works.”

Others were more sceptical. Blaine Dumkee, a senior instructor at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus, complained the process was too structured.

“There isn’t much room for idea generation,” he said. “He’s (Miltenberger) basically saying, ‘Here’s my tough job, how would you do it?’

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