Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Start of Budget Discussions

Last week's council meeting featured our first review of the police department budget. This marks the formal start to overall city budget discussions, although already some specific budget expenditures (such as the new ticket tracking system) have been approved.

Unlike other parts of the city budget, the police budget can only be approved or denied as a whole. Council cannot tinker with parts of it. The tinkering and eventual adjustments are the responsibility of the Police Commission. So, for example, council cannot remove the $20,000 request for a remote control helicopter device to help with surveillance. We can ask questions about the budget, but that's it.

I asked questions - no surprise there, since I believe that is a critical part of a councillor's job. It's the only way to get a better understanding of what is behind some of the requests, and it's a good way of differentiating between which requests are nice-to-haves, and which are essential. I may not be able to be part of the internal budget discussions at Police Commission meetings (these meetings are not open to other members of council), but perhaps some discussion will be initiated because of my questions.

I asked about staffing levels, as compared to Moose Jaw, which has a police service of 85. Ours is approximately 120. These numbers, in both cases, include both sworn staff and civilian support staff. That's quite a difference proportionally - almost half again as many. Part of the explanation given was that our police pick up way more intoxicated people than they do in Moose Jaw - our police pick about about 2000 drunks as year - in Moose Jaw it's less than 10. Another part of the explanation was that many of the calls that come in have to do with people who don't actually live in Prince Albert - our high transient population. I'm not sure that those fully explain the differences, but it is interesting to see how the demographic differences between the two cities have such an impact on city costs.

The police budget as requested will require an increase of almost 7% operational, and an increase of 11% for capital expenditures, including a new building that they have purchased which will cost us about $50,000 annually for the next 20 years - that's already happened. I suggested that they should be building reserves into their budget every year to fund some of these capital expenditures when they know that equipment is going to require replacement - be it vehicles or bullet-proof vests. It's like saving up to replace your own vehicle - way cheaper if you set aside a small amount every year, rather than having to get a large loan when your vehicle dies.

Another interesting budget item was the cost for the police commission (not the police themselves). Those costs have more than doubled over the past few years, with no clear reason why. I asked last year why these costs were rising so fast, and received no answer.

Police budgets everywhere are growing at an alarming rate. Some cities set a proportional limit for their police departments - Moose Jaw has theirs capped at 27% of their overall budget. If the city grows, and their budget grows, then the police budget will increase, but it won't take up a larger and larger portion of the overall city budget. Right now, in Prince Albert, the police budget is 30% of the city budget.

At an earlier council meeting, the city manager indicated that all departments were going to be held to a 1% increase this year. I asked specifically if this included the police department, and was told yes. Apparently this hasn't happened, which means that the police portion of the budget will creep ever higher. This is not sustainable, and means that other city needs either go unanswered, or taxes are increased.

On another note, I finally received the minutes for the soccer centre committee meetings, which I had asked for in April or May. Committee meetings, and the minutes, are supposed to be open to and available to the public, and a delay of this long is inexplicable. And the package only included minutes from 2008. I'm interested in the 2007 minutes, and have requested these, with the request that I receive them within 10 days. This is the largest capital project that the city has undertaken in some time, funded mostly by taxpayers' money, and I've had numerous questions from city residents about how decisions were made about the location, and whether soil testing was done before the location was selected, considering the cost over-run this past summer. To date, we still don't know what the operating costs will be, which will have direct impact on the city budget, and taxpayers, in future years. We have made decisions which future councils and residents will have to figure out how to manage.

If council is going to make good decisions, we need to have accurate information. Last year, we made decisions about the Art Hauser Centre and the Rawlinson Centre without them producing financial statements (which is supposed to be required). I'm hoping that this year, information is provided before we're expected to make the final decision about the budget.

As I've said before, setting the budget is probably the single most important activity that council and administration undertake - I hope that this year, all departments and committees take their responsibility to provide us with accurate, well-thought out budgets that recognize that further tax increases are an unfair burden to put on our residents.

"There is no such thing as a good tax." - Winston Churchill

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