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Several Treasure Valley cities will offer virtual and in-person options for public testimony ahead of approving their annual budgets for fiscal year 2021. 

After COVID-19 cases began to rise in Idaho, many local city councils transitioned to holding their meetings virtually, including Boise, Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell. Some of those cities initially paused public hearings, but all have since resumed them.

With budget hearings coming up later this summer, Meridian spokeswoman Shandy Lam said city officials "want as many people as possible" to look over the proposed budget. Meridian adopted a hybrid model for its meetings with some council members and residents attending virtually, while others attend in-person, and Lam said they plan to continue this model permanently, including for the budget hearings.

Lam said Meridian officials originally intended the model to be temporary, but after its implementation they realized that the virtual option provided more access for residents, although she doesn't know how it's affected overall engagement. 

"We are extremely transparent," Lam said. 

Meridian allows residents to give virtual testimony either live via Zoom or pre-recorded videos. Residents can also submit input via voicemail, email, letters or in-person, Lam said. 

Like Meridian, Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling said she wants to provide residents many different avenues to submit public testimony for the city's budget hearings. Nampa paused its public hearings for about three weeks after Gov. Brad Little issued the stay-home order in late March; it then shifted to allowing virtual testimony via Microsoft Teams. In recent weeks, Nampa City Council resumed holding its meetings at Nampa City Hall, and continues to accept both virtual and in-person testimony. 

"The key was to make sure we gave proper access to everything," Kling said. 

Since implementing virtual options for public testimony, neither Lam nor Kling said their city has encountered any major obstacles with the system. Lam said there were initially some small technical difficulties, while Kling said the biggest challenge was training city officials and residents on how to operate the technology. 

Residents who can't access the technology to testify virtually can still email, call or attend Nampa's meetings in-person, Kling said. She said she also wants to encourage residents to reach out to the city's department heads with questions or comments about the budget between Nampa's budget workshop July 13 and the public hearing Aug. 17, when the budget will be up for approval. 

"We want to give every avenue available," Kling said. 

Boise released its proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 Friday on the city's website. Boise City Council is continuing its regular meetings virtually via Zoom. 

According to an email from city spokeswoman Karen Boe, Boise City Council will hold a budget workshop Tuesday morning that will be a virtual meeting because of the pandemic, with a recording available after. The city will hold its public hearing on the budget July 21, and allow remote testimony opportunities. 

Caldwell City Council is in the midst of its five budget workshops scheduled between May and July, according to an email from city spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson. The city intended to hold six workshops, but canceled one scheduled July 7 according to the city's website. These workshops are open to the public, although Wilson did not clarify if residents must attend in-person or if there are remote options. 

Earlier in the pandemic, Caldwell City Council used hybrid models for its meetings, with some council members attending in-person while others attended virtually. As of its most recent regular meeting June 15, council members and other guests attended the meeting in the council chambers. Council members were spread out and Mayor Garret Nancolas said masks were available for those who wanted them. 

Caldwell typically sponsors three luncheons with the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce to review budget details prior to its approval, Wilson said, but due to the pandemic those events did not happen this year. However, city officials plan to post a link to the proposed budget and other information about the budget to Caldwell's social media pages to encourage public participation for the public hearings scheduled for Aug. 17 and Sept. 7. 

"We wish to always encourage community engagement in our budget process," Wilson said in the email.

Erin Bamer is the Nampa/Caldwell reporter. Contact her at 208-465-8193, or ebamer@idahopress.com. Follow on Twitter @ErinBamer.

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