Sunday, January 9, 2011

Some Really Good Budget Questions

All members of council got a good email from a city resident this week, posing some excellent and thoughtful questions about the draft budget. This individual had spent considerable time going through the document more thoroughly than some members of council, I’d be willing to bet, and I appreciate his taking the time to do so, then taking the time to send us an email and share his thoughts.

Here are some of his questions, paraphrased (my comments in italics):

  • The proposed costs for computer replacement - $60,000, or $1,500 each. Is that a reasonable amount to pay for a bulk purchase? Have we tendered out these purchases, to ensure best price?
  • Costs for a 2-man preventative maintenance team - $131,990. This is to maintain 48 city-owned facilities. Could some of these be sold to private operators? I’ve been asking for an inventory of city-owned facilities for some time. For instance, we own the Girl Guide Hall. Not that I have anything against Girl Guides, being married to someone who was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, but why are we providing them with a building, and not other organizations that are just as worthy?
  • Revenues for the soccer centre are projected to be $214,530 in 2011. Even if these revenues are generated, this facility will be operating in the red this year. Are there contingency plans for further shortfalls? Or are there plans for reducing costs this year (by operating for fewer hours each day, for example)?
  • $130,960 to maintain the Social Development department, even though funding for this department from both the federal and provincial governments has been withdrawn. Why is the city trying to maintain this department? Should the city not get rid of it altogether? I’ve always questioned the need for this department, which was created when the current mayor took office. Its mandate is outside city responsibilities, and duplicates work done by both the federal and provincial governments. Funding that was provided by these levels of government was through grants for specific projects, which are now complete.
  • The road repair backlog is estimated to be $50 million dollars. $3.5 million is allocated in the budget for this year. This is the minimum that should be invested each year, so that the backlog doesn’t increase. This is one item that we probably should have paid more attention to before investing in new capital expenditures. This is analogous to fixing the leaky roof before you buy the big screen TV - good thinking for the future.
  • Increase to the PA Arts Board of $122,730 (a 65.5% increase). Perhaps this group should look at some fund-raising projects to raise their own funds. I’ve often wondered why we expect the SPCA to do major fund-raising, but have continued to increase funding to the Arts Board under the current mayor, without, at a minimum, getting the required financial statements that would show us where the money is being spent.

These are good questions, and they deserve good answers. They are excellent examples of the sorts of issues that should be raised in budget discussions – here are some areas where costs could be saved, here are some areas that should be made priorities, here are some mistakes that we should try to avoid in the future.

Since all members of council, as well as the city manager, received this email, I’m hopeful that we will have good discussion of these questions, and perhaps his questions will generate more from council. However, history would dictate that answers, or further discussion that might slow the process, will be discouraged.

Tomorrow we’re having another “strategic planning session” to further discuss the budget (read – meet behind closed doors about how we plan to spend your money). This will be after the council meeting, but presumably before the public budget meeting. And then, next Friday, we’ll be having our final budget committee meeting – open to the public, but no input allowed. As has been the case for the past few years, we’ve set aside two days, but have forewarned people that we usually rush the review through in one day. If we really wanted to show respect for questions such as those outlined above, we would be giving the whole budget process a lot more time for discussion, questions, and answers.

“He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak” – Michel de Montaigne

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