The budget is a big topic. It seemed that as soon as I posted on Saturday, I thought of more things that needed to be said. Then I (and the rest of council) received a thoughtful and well-articulated letter from former councillor Barb Gustafson, raising even more concerns, some of which I'll share here.
That's the beauty of blogging - there's opportunity to say more, and spread the news.
I didn't even mention the proposed 10% increase in the police budget. This piece of the budget comes to us already approved by the Police Commission. Our only choice is to approve it as it comes to us, or send it back to be rethought as a whole. Council can't tinker with individual bits, although we do see the various components. How the Commission can justify this massive increase, when the Fire Department is seeking an increase of less than 1%, requires considerable explanation. One area that stood out for me was the Police Commission expenses, which are projected to almost double. That item alone should be able to be reduced, since I wouldn't identify those as being essential services.
Barb also raises concerns about the addition of items that aren't part of our core services - our recent forays into areas of social justice that are actually provincial and federal responsibilities. These are areas of concern for everyone, but when our roads and water mains are in disrepair, we should focus on these first, rather than on areas that are not within our scope. I had mentioned some of the dollars that are going into these areas; Barb points out that we should do more direct investing in low-income housing, for example, rather than holding rallies or going to conferences about homelessness.
I do approve of proposed expenditures that will lead to alternative sources of revenue to the city, such as the development of a columbarium at the cemetery for cremated remains. Although this isn't scheduled to be undertaken this year, it was discussed by council in 2005 as a way of increasing potential use of the cemetery, recognizing the increasing popularity of cremation, and also increasing revenues. Council and administration need to be more creative in finding these options, rather than always turning to the taxpayer to foot the bill.
Last week the Chamber of Commerce issued a media release, criticizing city council for not having an effective planning process or growth strategy, leading to lost development opportunities. I commend the Chamber for their courage and straightforwardness - this is not a council that accepts questions or criticism gracefully. My response would be to thank them for their valid comments, and then get together with them to figure out how we can start to plan effectively for our community's growth in this time of incredible opportunity.
As an example, a few weeks ago I was asked by someone what the city was doing to plan for the potential opportunities that diamond mining in the Fort a la Corne might bring. My response to that was that I'm not aware of anything that we're doing. We mention the diamond mines as something that's coming, but we're not doing anything to get ready for it. Other communities such as Nipawin and Melfort are researching what support this industry will need, and are encouraging development in those areas. Look for them to be ready for the boom when it hits, and for Prince Albert to be watching and wondering why we aren't netting the benefits that we could.
On the agenda for this evening's council meeting - the proposal for free access to the landfill for everyone for five weeks, even if they don't live in the city, (costing $10,000 per week) discussed at last week's Executive Meeting, a proposal from the Art Hauser Board that they hire another marketing manager for $70,000 (since the last one worked out so well, I guess), and another condo conversion proposal on River Street.
"If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." - Yogi Berra