Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

That line from the old song seems to describe the way things are going for the city. In these uncertain financial times, when financial advisors are suggesting to people that the most prudent course of action is to reduce spending and pay off debt, council gave first two readings to a bylaw that will allow us to increase our debt load.

It’s like we’ve maxed out our credit cards, and instead of cutting up the cards and taking a look at where we could cut costs, we’re applying for another one.

If an individual did this, most people would think that they deserved a smack on the back of the head, accompanied by the direction to smarten up. But when council does it, it’s apparently okay, because, to quote some members of council, "we have to, in order to pay for all the things that we’ve planned for". What we need to be more mindful of, in all our decisions, is that it’s not our money that we’re spending – it’s the hard-earned money of the taxpayers, who deserve better than yearly tax increases that are higher than inflation.

I’m sure many taxpayers are shaking their heads, wondering why we didn’t consider the costs before we committed to all these expenditures. And maybe wondering why we don’t set priorities – essentials first, then the fun stuff. Metaphorically, we’ve maxed out on the plasma television and fancy cars, and now realized that we can’t afford to fix the plumbing, so we’d better borrow more money.

I realize that many of the spending decisions of the past two years that were certainly not for essential services can’t be undone. The new furniture and carpet, the banners, the paint for half-painted light standards - that's all done, and the money is gone. But it’s not too late to put the brakes on discretionary spending, both large and small, in an effort to minimize next year’s tax hike. Let’s not pin our hopes on the remote possibility of extra money from either the federal or provincial governments (who are both warning of the possibility of deficit budgets). Instead, let’s go over next year’s budget seriously, trimming wherever possible, cutting out those frills that individually seem small, but that together could really have an impact on the bottom line.

Here’s a couple of small expenditures that I could manage without. We don’t need to produce Christmas cards for members of council to send out. I was quite surprised to receive a package of twenty-five cards in my council bundle a few weeks back – lovely cards, with a picture of the riverbank in winter and inside, an inaccurate tale of the original Prince Albert, imprinted with the names of all the members of council and greetings from "Canada's Christmas City" - a total waste of money. I don’t send out cards as a councillor; like most people, we send Christmas cards as a family, and I don’t expect to be subsidized by the taxpayer to do so. I don't even recall the purchase of these cards being discussed by council. I’d also be willing to forgo the meals that we get at council meetings. Not too many workplaces feed their employees at no cost. There’s two – I’m sure with a bit of creative brainstorming, council and administration could come up with more.

That’s what sensible people do, when they have more expenditures than income – they look for ways to cut back on their spending. I think that it’s too easy for council to find the solution in increasing income – that means increasing taxes. It’s about time we as a council started behaving sensibly.

I see no indication that we all understand how serious the situation is. I’m quite sure that this bylaw will pass tomorrow, at a special meeting less than 48 hours after the regular council meeting. A bylaw requires three readings to pass in one meeting; in order to get those three meetings, unanimous consent is required. If it’s a routine matter, I have no problems with three readings in one night, but for something with the potential impact of this bylaw, I think that it’s only right to give the public the opportunity to comment on our decision before it’s made final. So I voted against three readings, as did Councillor Williams.

In the past, the third reading would have happened at the next council meeting. This council, though, likes to call special meetings to deal with things as quickly as possible. I’m not sure what the motivation for such speed is – I am concerned that in moving with such haste, we appear to be disrespectful to the people of Prince Albert, as we put them deeper and deeper into debt that will hang on far beyond this council's mandate, a debt they certainly didn’t vote for.

"Debt - an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver." - Ambrose Bierce

1 comment:

Barb said...

And along with all the debt that has already been revealed, I see in the Police Capital Budget that there is an intention to buy the Pandila Law Office building. How much is this going to cost us all?