Many of the problems that are related to the budget don’t have to do specifically with content – much of our difficulty stems from a faulty process and poor communications.
For one thing, this year’s process has been far too rushed. I’ve had several people comment to me that the four days allowed for public review of the budget documents was not nearly enough time. Then we allot only one evening for public input. Then we set two days for council to review the documents, but really only intend to use one of those days, for no good reason that I can tell.
Friday’s budget review session was long and grueling. It started at 9 in the morning – I left at 6:30 in the evening, since I was long past my capacity for reviewing things seriously. I don’t know why we didn’t just use the two days scheduled, and break at a decent hour, rather than plowing through things until people stop caring about the content, they just want to get home. I did accomplish one thing – the money for the soccer centre will no longer be identified as a debt elimination levy on your tax bill. You will be able to see how many of your tax dollars are going to build that facility.
And now, today, there is a special council meeting to approve the budget. The most important action we take all year, and we’re rushing to get it done, rather than working to get it right. Perhaps some members of council will brag about how we’ve finished the process earlier than past councils, which I’m sure will be a great comfort to residents who face a higher tax bill than they would if we took the time to seriously review proposed expenditures and eliminate the non-essentials.
Another problem that I have is with the budget format. It's confusing, to say the least, and items can show up in places that one wouldn't expect. All of the expenditures related to a specific facility are not in the same place. Items that start out not recommended by administration can still be put into the final budget, if enough council members agree.
I received one email which said that it wasn’t fair to compare the proposed police budget with the fire department budget, since the police budget included capital expenditures that the fire budget dealt with elsewhere. The police budget is in a completely different format, and includes projected revenues, which makes it difficult to review and compare with the rest of the budget documents. Members of council who are also on the police commission didn’t bother to explain their budget, even though they’re the ones who have already reviewed and approved it. If those of us who spend some time working with budget documents get confused, how can we expect the public to digest all this, in even less time than council is given.
The process also lacks focus, much like many of council’s decisions lately. All the talk about doing better hasn’t helped us to figure out if we want a budget that will spur growth, or one that will focus on maintaining infrastructure, or one that is prepared for a flattening of revenues, and so focuses on cutting costs and saving for emergencies. We have a budget that doesn’t talk about growth at all, that has no real strategy for dealing with a crumbling infrastructure, but wants to buy more flowerpots, and that has eliminated saving for emergencies in favour of a recreational development that will, once built, take still more city resources to maintain, just as the Art Hauser Centre (losing $600,000 annually) and the EA Rawlinson Centre (now up to $300,000 in city support annually) do.
In any case, the budget review is complete, although I won’t know the final result until I get to the meeting. Then I’ll be expected to review a document and vote on it without having had time to review it properly. I hate being forced into doing a second-rate job on what should be a top priority.
"What's terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate." - Doris Lessing