Sunday, January 16, 2011

More Budget Fun

This week has been about as exciting as council gets, with things happening that I'm sure no member of council could have predicted, but the result is one that I'm sure most members of council feel good about.

As I mentioned last week, Monday evening was the only opportunity for people to comment directly to council on the proposed budget, although several people had taken the time to send emails or call me about their specific concerns. We had well-thought out presentations from the SPCA, the library, and the Community Service Centre on behalf of Senior's Transportation, all providing their reasons for requesting budget increases. Interestingly, we had no presentation from the Arts Board on behalf of the Rawlinson Centre, despite their requesting an additional $122,000 for this year, to add to the additional $50,000 that they asked for last year, which was supposed to be conditional on the submission of their financials for the previous year. We haven't yet seen their financials for 2009, but who knows if they got that $50,000 or not - we haven't seen their 2010 financials either. And yes, we are supposed to receive financial reports from any agency that we give money to, before we give them more money. This is the responsible way to run a business, particularly when you're spending taxpayers' money.

We also had a presentation from the Chamber of Commerce, pointing out some deficiencies in the budget - there should be a debt reduction plan (makes sense to me), agencies asking for city funding should be required to submit financial reports before getting funding (another no-brainer), we need a report on revenue and expenses for all city facilities (excellent suggestion). They also said that the suggested tax increase levels could be problematic. As is often the case, the mayor argued with the Chamber representative, suggesting that increased tax levels were necessary to prevent another Walkerton. The reality is that improvements to the water treatment plant are being paid for through your ever-increasing water rates, which is totally separate from this budget discussion.

Following the public meeting, we moved in camera for our "strategic planning" session. Once again, no actual strategic planning was done, but it means that the discussions that happened there are considered confidential.

On Tuesday, the mayor started calling and emailing members of council, asking each of us what percentage of increase would be acceptable. I refused to give him a number, because to me, setting the number is the last thing that you do. First, you cut discretionary spending as much as possible, then you set your spending priorities based on what needs to be done, then you figure out what tax increase is necessary. But until you've looked at your previous spending levels and identified superfluous spending (purchasing bottled water for city staff, creating and mailing custom-made Christmas cards for members of council, for example), figured out ways to improve efficiency by focusing efforts on needs rather than wants (let's use city crews for doing road maintenance rather than shifting cement planters around Memorial Square), and figured out where we can cut costs by reducing services (if not enough people are using the soccer centre during the day to pay for staff being there, why not only open it in the evenings and on weekends; does the lawn in front of city hall have to be cut more than once a week?) - after this work is done, then you can set a budget that will not waste people's tax dollars. Yes, there will likely be a tax increase, but if this work is done, it will be the lowest possible, without neglecting work that has to be done. So I didn't give him a number.

On Wednesday, the mayor called other members of council to tell us that he had decided that, rather than discussing the whole budget on Friday and Saturday, as had been planned, we would be meeting on Friday to only deal with the capital side of the budget. This involves things like equipment and project funding. The other side of the budget, operating expenditures, would be looked at the following Wednesday, January 19.

I had some problems with this. While there are two pieces to the budget, they are interconnected in many ways, and need to be discussed together. As well, we weren't being provided with any additional information, and without more detail, including details of the police budget, I can't approve a proposed budget.

So first thing Friday morning, when the mayor asked if any member of council had any comments, I decided to speak. I thanked the staff for the hard work that had been done, but said that sadly, I still had far more questions than answers. Council has gotten itself into this situation, by not providing input to staff before the budget was prepared. And we shouldn't be going as individual members of council to suggest budget directions and strategy - we should be making our decisions collectively. Therefore, I made a motion to delay both part of the budget, both capital and operations, until March. This would give staff time to provide more information, and would give council and the public time to review what I hope will be a budget with considerably more detail about discretionary spending reductions, opportunities for improved efficiencies in service delivery, and an examination of current staffing levels. I want to see a report (I've been asking for this for seven years) on the 48 buildings that the city owns. Each of these buildings costs us money - maintenance, utility costs, major repairs - some return revenues, others do not. We need to decide which should be handed over to their user groups, which are no longer feasible to operate at all, and which we should retain responsibility for. I later amended my motion to leave the setting of our budget meeting up to council as a whole to decide. My initial suggestion of March was based on the need to give staff time to put together this information and make budget revisions, and on the fact that some members of council have February holidays planned. But if late February is a possible target date, that would be fine with me.

After more than an hour and a half of quite lively discussion on my motion, with a few members of council making half-hearted excuses as to why we should continue as planned, the motion passed, almost unanimously. We then moved in camera to discuss some of the confidential items in the budget. This one section of the budget took the rest of the day to discuss, with additional information being provided by staff at this time. This is the first time in four years that council has had this kind of in-depth discussions with staff, which means that for seven members of council, it's their first time ever in a true city budget discussion. As far as I could tell, for most members of council, it was a day well spent. Sadly, it's the kind of discussion that should happen at the beginning of the budget process, not the end, and it should happen every year.

I hope that staff takes this direction from council to come up with a budget that contains enough information to allow us to have good budget deliberations, whenever that happens. If staff feel that further direction is needed, then we all need to sit down together again, until we all understand and agree on the direction that we need to go to set the city on the right financial path.

This is how we need to operate, to be seen as open and accountable.

"I like a little rebellion now and then. It's like a storm in the atmosphere." - Thomas Jefferson

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