Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Surviving the Budget Process Whirlwind

Except for the formalities of the final vote which will happen at the next council meeting on April 6, Council has finished with this year's budget process, setting a new speed record in the process.

We received our budget documents last Monday evening, March 23. The documents were available to the public on the city website at the same time. The public meeting to discuss the budget was on Thursday evening. Friday morning we started budget discussions at about 9 a.m., and finished at 12:45 p.m. This time included a half hour lunch break.

This is a budget of approximately $35 million dollars. It comes in two separate binders, one for capital expenditures and the other for operating expenditures. The paper in each binder is about two inches thick.

To meaningfully discuss and ask questions about that size of document in only a little over three hours is beyond my capabilities, especially since we had only three days to review it all. I thought that last year's process, when we spent a very long day in review was too rushed - in comparison, it was a leisurely stroll through the pages. This year any sort of discussion or questioning was cut off quite quickly.

I'm sure that many members of council hope that people will just focus on the fact that the tax rate increase will be 0%, the target that the mayor set in his State of the City address. After two successive years of 6% increases, plus the ongoing increases in water bills and sanitation fees, citizens deserve a tax break.

But how, with various expenditures already approved, and an increase to the police budget of 7%, far above inflation, did we accomplish this? And what is the real cost?

Well, part of it was done by the province, in its commitment to municipalities of a portion of the sales tax, as well as the one-time infrastructure funding that is headed our way. That's the good part. The other part of it was done by putting things off. Some future council will have to deal with the procrastination of this council.

What are some of these deferred expenditures? In the capital projects area, here are a few examples. An intersection upgrade for the proposed (but on hold) Home Depot, saved $150,000 by being postponed for a year. Not doing any sidewalk rehabilitation saved $200,000, also now targeted for 2010. Putting off parking lot rehabilitation for a year cut $50,000. The Arts Centre, where maintaining key building elements is a requirement of its Heritage Building status, is having some of its basic repair work deferred, for a savings of $32,000. The normal roofing repair budget of $200,000 has been slashed for this year to $14,000. A Zamboni already overdue for replacement and costing a fair amount in repairs is going to have to hang on for another year, to save us $100,000. Several police, fire and city vehicles well past their prime won't be replaced just yet. Bridge maintenance on the Diefenbaker Bridge is on hold for another couple of years, saving this budget more than $1 million - we hear a lot of talk about needing a second bridge, but apparently it's not a priority to do the basic maintenance on the one we have.

For many of these deferred expenditures, two things will happen. Structures such as sidewalks will degrade even further, so that eventual repairs will be more expensive. Delaying maintenance to buildings and roofs can cause more serious damage (and higher costs) in the long run. And future councils will have to make up for the delays of this council by asking for higher tax increases. I find that ironic, since some members of this current council have been pretty quick to blame previous councils, claiming that their lack of action is the reason for this council's budget increases. I hope that they're as quick to accept the blame in the future.

On the spending side, this budget has managed to find room for such non-essentials as golf course upgrades, new banners, and $48,000 for the Golf and Curling Club to have a party and host a tournament, in honour of its hundredth anniversary. To put it in perspective, that's more than we gave the SPCA last year to take care of abandoned animals. At least this year, one of the positive things in the budget is a $30,000 increase to the SPCA. Given the choice, I think that most taxpayers would rather fund the SPCA than a party for relatively few people who can probably afford to buy their own beer and meals.

The budget also puts $100,000 back into the fiscal stabilization reserve fund. This is a fund started by previous councils to ensure that money was available to deal with unexpected expenditures - extra snow-plowing in a bad winter, for example. When this money is available, we don't have to go into debt to pay for these little surprises that are hard to predict.

When this council took office, this fund had $1.2 million in it. This budget is the first time that this council has contributed to the fund rather than dipped into it - the current level, after two years of this council, is $239,804.61. At this rate of contribution, we'll get back up to the previous level in ten years, assuming, of course, that we don't dip into it again.

A final thought on this budget - this council will only have to deal with it for six months. In October, a new council will be elected, and they will be the ones to deal with any shortfalls this year. Hardly the kind of legacy that we should want to be leaving. But we didn't have time to discuss any of this - we were setting a record.

"Doing more things faster is not a substitute for doing the right things." - Stephen Covey

1 comment:

bigdawg said...

Most people spent much more time purchasing a new T.V. than how this multi-million dollar budget was pushed through.Without a doubt one of the most irresponsible things done on behalf of the citizens of P.A. Perhaps with the economy the way it is taking the time to go through line by line would have been time and money well spent.The blind will push this through without hesitation and then lay the blame at someone else's feet when problems arise.