Sunday, June 27, 2010

Budget? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Budget

With apologies to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for revising the quote from the bandits who steal from Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.

But really, what else can you say when some members of council seem to think that the whole budget process is just an unnecessary action that they go through (as quickly as possible), only because The Cities Act says that a city council has to set a budget every year. But they don't want to spend a whole lot of time or effort on it - they would rather just spend tax payers' money whenever they want, on whatever pops into their mind. Why use the budget process to plan and set priorities and limits?

Why am I on another budget rant, when the whole budget process was over months ago?

Because at last week's Executive Committee meeting, it was decided to add $20,000 to the budget, to allow for additional transit costs. It has been decided that the city bus service should start fifteen minutes earlier every day, and end fifteen minutes later. This will add $30,000 to its cost to the city. However, the idea is that, between the increased fare costs, and the increased usage that this extra fifteen minutes on either of end of the service will bring, revenues will go up $10,000, so the actual hit on the budget will be only $20,000. We can only hope that it's that low.

But isn't it a good idea to encourage more use of public transit? Of course it is, although council wasn't shown any studies or surveys that were done showing that there is a great demand for this additional service, any more than there were studies showing that the new transit mall being built on 14th Street behind the old OK Economy building (also currently over budget by a couple of hundred thousand dollars, for which we're hoping the federal government will cough up some more funds) would increase ridership on the buses.

My point is that, worthy cause or not, all proposed expenditures should be brought up as part of the budget process. If we followed the process, then all the various things that we could spend money on could be weighed, both their costs and potential benefits, and as a council we could set a spending plan for the year that wouldn't contain such surprises. There will always be emergencies, of course, and for those, part of the budget process should also set aside a contingency fund. And when you do things as part of the regular process, with the whole thing available to the public for comment and review, then as a council, you are being open and accountable.

Adding another item to the budget at this late date ignores the fact that the budget is the tool used to set the residential tax rate. That rate is set now; in fact, your taxes are due by this Wednesday. That's a big part of our operating money for this year. We can't increase our take from the good citizens of Prince Albert at this point, not this year, anyway.

This particular proposal isn't an emergency. And it isn't just a last minute thought, either. I had heard it mentioned a few times before the budget was prepared, but it wasn't in the budget, nor was it brought up during our mad rush through the approval process. Why it's being raised now I can only speculate on - perhaps it's because it's close to summer, and people won't be paying much attention; or perhaps the promoter of this particular idea doesn't think that he should have to follow the rules, because his ideas are just so darn good.

When it was pointed out that this wasn't in the budget, the response was predictable - "We'll just have to find the money somewhere." Well, if past years are any indication, we rarely underspend on anything - our contingency fund is usually scraped bare in adding to the budgets of various projects which go over-budget for a whole range of reasons. Unlike the days of Neat and Clean, there isn't a large slush fund to be accessed on a whim, either.

So at the end of the year, some projects already planned for will be delayed, others will silently die, and the fiscal reserve fund that at one point, under the leadership of other mayors, had $2.4 million in it, and this year has about $200,000, will be back down to zero, so we'd better pray for no real emergencies. And we will, once again, have failed to provide a good fiscal example to the tax payers, and some members of council will continue to think that this is how you lead a city.

"Unfortunately, you can fool too many of the people too much of the time." - James Thurber

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