Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Budget Vote

The budget meeting last week, sadly, wasn't much of a surprise. Despite the glaring inadequacies of both the process and the resulting documents, I was the only member of council to vote against what really is an incomplete effort, both in process and in result.

In fact, this really isn't a budget in the true sense of the word. It sets out, in varying levels of detail, how we propose to spend money this year, and how much more money we will be taking from the taxpayer to fund these efforts. But there was no attempt made to look at previous spending (in fact, when I raised the issue one councillor even claimed that we'd agreed to stick with status quo spending - obviously at one of those meetings that I wasn't invited to). There was no setting of objectives. There was no plan as to how to meet our various obligations - only deferral of things like road maintenance (where our neglected obligations are already at a multi-million dollar level) to some vague future time, when the costs will certainly be greater.

If this were our own personal budget, that's one thing. Let's say you're setting your own household budget. If you decide, for example, to continue buying a full cable package, even though the person in the family who wanted all the sports channels has moved out, well, it's your money. If you want to spend it on non-essentials like cable channels that you no longer watch, rather than fixing the roof, you'll be the one stuck for the damage when the roof starts leaking. But for council, it's not our money, it's the taxpayers who have to trust us not to spend more than we have to, who have to trust us to look at every expenditure to see if it's necessary, and who have to trust us to be spending their money first, on the necessities, then on the nice to haves. Taxpayers could certainly ask why, for example, the mayor and the city manager each need two administrative assistants, for a total of four, when in previous administrations the mayor and the city manager were able to get by sharing one. Ironically, before the budget, it was announced that $4,000 would be cut from the mayor's office budget. That savings was going to be accomplished by leaving one admin assistant position vacant for a month. However, even that small savings won't be realized, since the position has now been speedily filled after a councillor had the temerity to ask during the budget meeting if the position was really necessary.

We also should follow our own policies when doing the budget. For instance, our policy says that we require financial reports from all the entities that we support - the library, the Art Hauser Centre, the Rawlinson Centre, for example, before we approve granting them money for another year. Yet again, the Rawlinson Centre has not provided financials for last year. Not only do we continue to fund them, but this year we have decided to give them an additional $50,000, without even a written request as to why this additional funding is needed. When this sort of thing happens, people start to question what appear to be backroom deals. We talk about being open and accountable, but our actions are exactly the opposite.

We received, once again, a grant from the Northern Lights Casino. This grant is supposed to be used for things that are over and above regular city responsibilities. This year, the money was rolled into the budget, rather than being dealt with separately. This is just wrong, and shouldn't even have been considered.

And finally, and most significantly, the police budget came in with no detail. This has not happened before in my ten years on council. All of a sudden, we are supposed to assume that the police commission is not to be questioned on matters of budget, even though last year they originally budgeted $24,000 for a remote control gadget (which came out of the plans after it was made public), and this year we found out that the local police department replaces its vehicles after only two years of use, even though a bit of investigation by a reporter showed that no other community in western Canada replaces vehicles that quickly. The question that I'm hearing from the public now is "What are they hiding?" If you have a reasonable budget, you shouldn't be afraid to let people see it.

Of course, the response that I got from one councillor was "that's all we legally have to provide". I suppose that legally, he's right. Ethically, it stinks. Perhaps next year the entire budget will be approached that way, as it already is for the police, and the mayor's office budget - forget any detail, let's just have one number for capital expenditures, one for operating expenditures. Because legally, perhaps that's all that's required.

So, after all's said and done, aren't we stuck with this budget? Is it too late to fix it? No, it's not too late. I remember years when the budget wasn't set until May, and somehow, we survived. I realize that a great deal of work has been done; the problem is, the job isn't finished. And instead of just throwing up our hands and accepting a substandard job, we should be digging in, asking questions, cutting unnecessary expenditures, figuring out how we're going to deal with the backlog of poorly maintained roads and lead pipes still in place.

And we should be sharing this process with the public, and seeing how we can improve how we tell people about how we're spending their money.

I can't support this budget, and I can't support the process that was followed. So my only option is to vote against the budget bylaw. I can't support actions of council that so directly contradict the basic tenets of democracy, and that fly in the face of all the promises that are made during elections, and when council is first sworn in.

Open and accountable - no. Closed and arrogant - yes. Sadly, that's not nearly as catchy a slogan.

"It is no use saying 'we are doing our best'. You have to succeed in doing what is necessary." Winston Churchill

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