Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, Same Old Games

My apologies for my quietness on the blog front - I've been having a few computer issues. Hopefully this entry won't disappear into the ether.

Christmas was the usual relaxing time for us. Since most of our family is in Ontario, and we've chosen never to travel east at this hectic time of year, our celebrations are quiet, with just the four of us, although we did get a surprise visit from Santa on Christmas morning. Ingrid was able to be home with us from the day before Christmas Eve until yesterday - she also brought her three cats with her, but surprisingly there were few cat skirmishes. They establish their territories, and pretty much leave each other alone. Guthrie also had a four day break over Christmas, and fit in a one day road trip to Edmonton the day before New Year's Eve to see a concert. Andrea managed to take off most of the two weeks that she'd booked off, although she did go in for a couple of meetings, as well as to feed her office fish and water her plants.

So it was a good rest, with lazy days filled with relaxing, reading, watching old movies, enjoying the usual Christmas treats and traditions, and quiet evenings visiting with friends. We find it a great way to end off the year.

Of course, council also had a couple of weeks of no meetings. We did get the draft budget after our last meeting, and I've fielded a few phone calls and questions about my thoughts on it.

As is often the case, I have difficulties with the whole budget process. With previous mayors, council as a whole would give city administration direction before the budgeting process began, to set priorities and establish some basic principles. That no longer happens. I'm sure that administration gets direction, but it doesn't come from council as a whole. And for the first time in memory, we've been given three alternatives, much like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears - high, medium, and low, although even the low figure is well above inflation. One can rest assured that the high number won't be the final one - but you'll be expected to feel grateful, because, see, it could have been worse.

One of the faults of the way we've been budgeting lately is that there seems to be an assumption that we will just start with what we spent last year, and add to it, without reviewing to see if there are areas for improvement with our current spending practices. If you were preparing your own household budget, and your costs had risen faster than your income, your first step would be to look at what you were spending, and see if there were discretionary areas where you could reduce your costs, to help to bring things into balance. Perhaps you would decrease your cable package, or stop eating out as often, or buy generic brands rather than name brands at the grocery store. Similarly, administration and council could look at things such as staffing levels - are there positions that could be left vacant when someone leaves or retires, or are there projects that are complete, where positions could be abolished, or are there positions (such as the individual whose job it is to track the contributions to the soccer centre) that could probably be handled by someone else as part of their regular duties? Are there buildings that we pay costs for, either completely, or partially, where we should be making those who use those buildings pay for things such as utilities? Are there city facilities, such as the soccer centre, that could reduce their hours to save a few taxpayers' dollars? These are areas that we should look at, before we assume that we can just ding the taxpayer more and more each year, without showing any overall improvement in services - in fact, while falling behind on things like infrastructure maintenance.

The budget is in a new format - I'm not sure why. We actually had a special "strategic planning meeting" (no strategy, no planning, but some members of council tend to label meetings that they want to keep private with that name) after today's Executive Committee and Committee of the Whole meetings, where the new format was supposed to be explained to us. It lasted maybe twenty minutes, and I'm no more enlightened than I was before.

New format or not, I can see that we have been provided much less detail than in budgets of previous years. We're continuing down the slippery slope that was started last year when the Police Commission decided that council as a whole couldn't be trusted with seeing the police budget, even though some members of the Commission aren't elected (one doesn't even live in Prince Albert), and the police budget makes up one-third of the total budget, an amount that taxpayers certainly deserve to be able to review in detail. Last year's excuse was first, that they didn't want criminals to be able to figure out crime-fighting strategies from the budget, then it was that the Police Act prohibits the release of a the budget in detail, which is not true. Why they would even try such a lame excuse, when other cities (and Prince Albert, until last year), make their police budgets openly available, is beyond me.

In any case, the draft budget provides little detail about how your money will be spent, or what our priorities are. And yet, there are some on council who continue to insist that we operate in an open and accountable manner. To keep saying that, while doing the exact opposite, makes all of our actions questionable. It's the same as claims that all of council is involved in the final decisions about the budget, when the practice has been to rush through the process, discourage questions from both the public and members of council, and treat any disagreements as though they were evidence of high treason. And it's unfortunate, because it also makes claims that the good of the city is the foundation of all our discussions appear to be just another soundbite. Taxpayers deserve more substance than image, and most would welcome it, I'm sure.
"I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow." - Woodrow Wilson

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