Like most citizens, I was surprised by the Mayor's announcement during his State of the City speech on Thursday that he has a target of a zero per cent tax increase for this year. This hasn't been discussed by council, and considering the city manager's direction to departments to keep their increases to 1% (to which the submitted budget from the police department didn't even come close), probably not discussed with city administration either.
I'm all for setting goals for the city, and for setting our sights high, otherwise we can never make any progress. And I agree that one of our goals should be to minimize tax increases - that should be our target every year, not just, as some of the more cynical have already pointed out, in an election year. And considering that in the past two years this council has delivered budgets with increases of greater than 5% for tax rates each year, not to mention ongoing increases in water rates for residential users, and increases in sanition surcharges, aiming for no increase is overdue.
The mayor said that he intends to achieve this by getting money from the provincial and federal governments. Since Premier Wall announced the possibility of funding cities through a proportion of sales tax revenue, rather than a grant that varies from year to year, it looks promising that provincial funding will at least become more predictable, but I don't think that we can expect numbers to be greatly increased from previous funding levels, particularly considering the recent lowering of revenue estimates. We don't know yet how the money will be allocated - whether it will be on a per capita basis, or by region, or some other way. And of course, this amount will vary from year to year - if people in Saskatchewan cut back on their spending because of economic concerns, then the amount brought in through sales taxes will also decrease.
The previews from the federal government have stated that a fund of $1 billion will be available to help communities hard hit by problems in agriculture and forestry - we don't have any details on what the requirements for getting this money will be, or what the limitations will be on its use, and there are a lot of communities out there in worse straits than Prince Albert. These types of one-time only funding aren't sustainable, and are best used to help with individual projects - infrastructure developments, for example - otherwise future budgeting exercises will take an extra hit when this money is no longer available.
Planning to balance your budget using as-yet to be quantified funds from other levels of government is like planning to finance your retirement by winning the lottery - nice if it happens, but you should still be paying off your debts and doing your own planning, budgeting and investing, just to be sure.
It would have helped if we would have set our budget goal early, as a council, with advice from city administration, and considering all the factors that come into play. We have recently signed agreements with our various unions - none of them include a 0% pay increase. We have a major construction project underway which already has cost more than was budgeted, and we still don't know what the basic operating costs for this facility will be. Other facilities, such as the Art Hauser Centre and the E.A. Rawlinson Centre, ask for more and more money each year. And new requests that may come from council, such as new stop lights, a new bridge, or taking action on lead water connections, haven't been built into the equation. And we've already either spent money or approved expenditures ahead of the whole budgeting process, which limits any flexibility that may remain.
Another problem we have is that, when I ask, no one seems to know exactly how many employees we have. This is the single biggest expense in the budget, and we don't have a handle on how many employees we have, let alone if they're all essential, or if there are places where we could cut back.
No question, I will be delighted if, as a council, we can come up with a 0% tax increase. But I would suggest that such a result is more likely if, in addition to wishing and hoping for money to be doled out by higher levels of government, we take a good look at where we're currently spending our money, and trim wherever possible, large and small. Otherwise, even if federal or provincial funds come our way, we may not be able to reach this goal.
On another note, I'd like to thank the individual who pointed out an error that I made in my last post about the police budget - the police pick up about 2,000 drunks each year, not 200. Even so, I still find it hard to justify 50 extra positions in the police department to deal with an average of 6 intoxicated persons per day.
"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" - Robert Browning