Maple Ridge budget talks venture into cyber space

Maple Ridge fields questions about 2013 budget via Twitter, Facebook and email

Laura Benson delivers a question received via social media to District of Maple Ridge staff during Monday’s budget discussions.

Laura Benson delivers a question received via social media to District of Maple Ridge staff during Monday’s budget discussions.

Discussion about Maple Ridge’s budget didn’t go viral, it wasn’t trending on Twitter, but the experiment that took the dusty dry topic of municipal finance into the realm of social media worked Monday night.

Maple Ridge council opened its budget talks to the new media for an hour starting at 6 p.m. by livestreaming its meeting over its website.

The idea was to get people involved via their smartphones, computers or iPads.

It wasn’t long before the questions flew in via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.

“Based on what I’m hearing, our new growth costs more than it brings in so we are budgeting in tax increases forever … ” came one tweet.

The point that seemed to be made was that residential developments cost more to service than the property taxes they bring in.

The answer, in a 140-character tweet from staff, was that businesses will move to Maple Ridge when the population is big enough. But to attract businesses, the population base has to grow.

Someone else wanted to know if better and more narrow roads would make Maple Ridge more people friendly than car friendly.

“We need to balance road design for commuters and residents,” staff tweeted in a reply. “For example, in seniors area the road [224th Street] was once assigned as an arterial route.”

The street has since been narrowed, the answer continues in a follow-up tweet. Improvements are also underway to 122nd Avenue and Kanaka Way, while traffic-calming is planned for 132nd Avenue.

But only one question came in asking directly about taxes and it seemed to question council’s halving of the one-per-cent increase levied for upkeep of roads, sewers and sidewalks. Isn’t that full amount needed to keep things in good repair?

It was the first time Maple Ridge livestreamed its budget meeting, said Laura Benson, sustainabilty manager.

When it came to Facebook, the event only drew one response however from Once Upon a Tea Leaf from someone who watched the meeting on their iPhone. “So cool!” came the comment.

Council also took questions from the audience in council chambers, which numbered about half a dozen people.

Former council candidate Graham Mowatt wanted to know how much it cost the district to belong to Metro Vancouver and what services the district gets in return.

Council rolled out its budget that calls for a 3.9-per-cent hike next year in taxes and utilities, about another $100 more for an average home. It gave three readings to that 2013 financial plan at its Tuesday meeting.

Somebody else wanted to know why Maple Ridge had no municipal garbage pickup.

But public works manager Frank Quinn pointed out that two recent reports said it would result in a 10 to 15-per-cent rise in property taxes.

Two-thirds of Maple Ridge residents already have residential garbage pickup through private contractors while the other third take their trash to the waste transfer station in Albion industrial area.

And if Mission can keep property tax increases at zero, why can’t Maple Ridge?, while another wanted to know why the property tax increase exceeded the inflation rate.

Finance general manager Paul Gill though pointed out that the costs that cities face are different than those of a household.

“I don’t know of many households that buy fire trucks or police cars.”

Taxpayers also gave their feedback via News articles that appeared earlier online. One reader said that Maple Ridge’s “gold-plated” fire department’s $10-million budget next year is a “prime example of out-of-control vision.”