For the 2011 budget, Fredericton City Hall has promised to be more transparent. While we wait for the bulk of the budget to be released, they gave us a tease by publishing a somewhat vague PowerPoint presentation about the water and sewer system. Although this transparency is a start, it doesn’t provide the level of details or engagement that people are beginning to expect. The only avenue for feedback is the link to the list of mayor and councilor addresses.

To test this engagement, I came up with the following questions and sent them to the entire council:

  1. Why does the City of Fredericton have a water & sewer commission as well as the FAPCC? Is there much overhead in having these two commissions?
  2. The presentation states that there is a $119M infrastructure deficit, yet there will only be $1.8M spent next year in renewal. That’s only 1.5%, which at that rate would take us 66 years to catch up (assuming deficit doesn’t grow). Why are we not being more aggressive in renewing the infrastructure?
  3. The annual water and sewer bill for a family of 4 is quoted as being $580/year. I have asked a number of friends and acquaintances what their water bill was like and none of them paid more than $450. Where did that $580 come from? It seems to be inflated and I am concerned that it would be skewing the calculations for rate increases.
  4. As the global trend is to encourage water conservation, why is the service fee being increased? Why not raise the usage based rates instead?

E-mail was sent at 9pm on Tues Nov 30. Within 2 hours, I got personal acknowledgements from Mayor Woodside and Councillor Mike O’Brien (who are the same ones who engage on Twitter). They didn’t answer the questions, but both promised that answers would be forthcoming.

At 9:45am the next morning, I got an e-mail from Councillor Steve Hicks that had answers to my questions. In summary:

  1. It works well with two commissions, however, they could and probably should be merged
  2. Renewal funds come from other sources as well, like gas tax revenue. Council is aware that this has the potential to be a big problem.
  3. The $580 is a “standard usage volume” that is typical across Canada and is only used to compare with other cities. It is not used to calculate revenue projections.
  4. Consumption is actually decreasing, having too much emphasis on consumption would starve the city of revenue.

While the level of engagement works, more could be done. Rather than be forced to e-mail every council member, there should be an online forum where questions and suggestions can be handled by a “point person” who will be able to answer authoritatively. This would also have the benefit of the responses being visible to the public, which would avoid having the same questions asked again and again.

They still have a way to go, but this process is a vast improvement over the past where City Hall was behind a giant wall. We’re also unlikely to see any explicit detail on some of the most expensive parts of the operation, the “general and administrative” costs. This would essentially disclose salary levels of employees and probably violate privacy laws.