The pattern of the previous council of treating the budget process as a sprint, rather than a well-thought through marathon, has sadly continued with the current council. I can see so many opportunities for improvement in the process, that would likely result in an improved product that better served the tax payers of Prince Albert, but there doesn't seem to be much appetite for improvement around the council table, or with city administration.
To begin before the beginning, council as a whole was not asked for input before city staff began developing the budget - no questions about priorities, goals, or objectives. It could be compared to going to a travel agent to plan a vacation, and they develop a complete plan without asking you where you want to go, what sights you're interested in, or how much money you have to spend. The opportunity to do this could have happened in November, at our so-called strategic planning session, but it didn't.
As well, the assumption is made that whatever is currently being spent will continue that way. The option of zero-based budgeting, in which every current expenditure is looked at, evaluated, and justified, might show some areas for cost-savings - are there some city positions that are currently vacant, that perhaps don't need to be filled, for example. If we increased our vehicle maintenance budget, could we perhaps extend their life, and save money in the long run, would be another example. But apparently it's not worth the effort of thorough examination. Expectations that city facilities such as the Rawlinson Centre submit financial reports before the budgeting process are ignored by administration, who instead suggest increases to organizations which don't even bother to report on how they're spending tax payers' dollars.
And some areas of the budget are not provided in any detail. This year, the budget contained no detail about what is included in the mayor's office budget, for example, or in the budget for the city manager's office. And, most egregiously, and for the first time (although the director of finance tried to tell me that we never receive details on this) the police budget was a single line, with no detail about how they propose to spend more than 11 million dollars, more than 30% of the total city budget. And when I asked to see last year's police budget for a comparison, administration refused to provide it to me.
As I have often pointed out, we rush through our review in a ludicrous amount of time. Council members received budget documents last Friday, March 19. The public didn't have access until Monday, and the public meeting about the budget was on Wednesday - less than two days to review almost a thousand pages of numbers - I've been reviewing city budgets for ten years, and it's never been an easy process, since there's always cross-referencing and moving between the capital and the operating budgets, to find out where items are. No wonder there were only three submissions from the public, and the meeting was over in nineteen minutes.
Then council is supposed to meet on the Friday and Saturday to review the budget, which we've had for less than a week. I'm lucky - I don't have a job outside of council. Other councillors with full-time jobs, or who are taking courses, have to work their way through the documents in less time than I have.
Although we set aside two days to review the budget line by line, this is the fourth year that we've only used half that time, and believe me, the documents haven't gotten any thinner. Items are numbered, and the expectation of the chair seems to be that we can review items in blocks of more than 100 or more - it's hard to keep up, to comment on or ask questions about those items that I've highlighted in my review, and comments and questions are not encouraged.
We started the review at 9 a.m.. We broke for lunch at 12:30, went back at 1:30, then carried on until 6 p.m. Any suggestion that we break for the evening, then reconvene in the morning, wasn't brought forward, since the mood of some in the room was getting a bit testy. Taking a break, then meeting again in the morning, as was already scheduled, would have given us a chance to review what we had done, and ask any questions that might have gotten lost in the blur of speeding through the pages.
The next council meeting will be April 12, at which time we will vote to pass or reject the budget. For council, that's less than a month to review, discuss, and approve a document that in essence sets out our priorities, and decides what is done for the city for the next twelve months. Somehow, I feel that we should put more time and effort into the process - as with most things, the result would probably be something that everyone would feel better about.
"Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything." - Wyatt Earp