Sunday, March 6, 2011

Preparing (again) for the Budget

We're back to a more regular meeting schedule now that February is over, with an executive meeting tomorrow, and council next Monday, four weeks since the last council meeting. After that will be our budget meetings - set for Friday and Saturday, March 18th and 19th.

In late January, when we delayed our budget deliberations because we had insufficient information, I had hoped that in the intervening time we would get more information from city administration, specifically in the areas of discretionary spending (where could we cut back on what we currently spend), staffing (what positions could be eliminated), and financial information about city facilities. Well, a few jobs have been cut, but we haven't received an overall review of all positions and potential reductions. And we've received nothing on potential savings in current spending, or financial reports from some city facilities.

At the last council meeting, I proposed that we take at least one step to save money - freeze the salaries of out-of-scope staff for the next year. I'm looking forward to our discussions on this at our next council meeting.

I proposed this for a few reasons. The main reason is that we are in serious financial difficulties as a city - the city manager has told council, and some members of the public, that the city is broke. When you're broke, you look to reduce costs wherever you can. Salaries are a large part of our costs, and any step that we can take to limit these costs is worth at least some discussion. Right now, raises for out-of-scope staff usually follow whatever raise that the unions negotiate, and the city is heading into these negotiations this year. Council does not participate in these negotiations, but we do approve the out-of-scope salaries, and I think that it would be prudent to decide ahead of time that we can't afford raises for everyone this year.

Another reason is that I've been disappointed with the initiative shown by administration in cutting costs. Their initial reports indicated that, to make up for past neglect in things like road maintenance (caused in part by a zero per cent increase a couple of years back), we should be raising taxes more than 16 per cent. This would be huge, and before we should even consider such a thing, we should be cutting anything and everything that we can, that wouldn't affect the basic operations of the city. I've mentioned before that expenses like pots of flowers on Memorial Square, meals for members of council, custom-made Christmas cards, gifts for the mayor to give visitors to his office are all things that could be cut from the budget without affecting how well the city runs. We could also look at reducing costs by having facilities like the soccer centre open fewer hours, or by handing over city-run facilities to the organizations that benefit directly from them. But we have yet to see a budget that cuts any of these nice-to-haves or suggests other changes (and the budget that we got this year had so little detail that we couldn't see how much such things cost). So I thought that I would make a suggestion that would make them sit up, take notice, and perhaps provide us with some cost-savings alternatives.

I'm sure that I didn't make any friends among city hall staff with my suggestion. That doesn't bother me - that's not why I was elected. And I'm also not surprised that the usual gang of on-line critics has taken a few irrelevant shots at me on various web-sites. I realize that many of them like to use the anonymity that these sites provide to vent their anger at me for a variety of my past decisions. I wish that the discussion would focus, not on me and my many failings, but on my suggestion, and what the pros and cons of the suggestion are - just leave the personal insults out of it. It's a bit like road rage - people say things on anonymous forums that they would never say to your face. I've learned that it goes with the territory, but those who unleash their anger at any elected official in this way should pause for a moment and wonder if perhaps that's one reason why it can be difficult to find people willing to run for council, where your ideas and opinions aren't anonymous. Just a thought.

In any case, in my ten years and a bit on council, this is the most difficult financial situation that the city has been in. Our budget discussions need to focus on how best we can solve our spending issues, without burdening both current and future tax-payers. To do this we have to look at everything that we spend money on and figure out if we can still afford to do so. We need to look at other options for increasing revenue, rather than just taxing residents (sharing water rate increases with commercial users, charging for parking for events at the Art Hauser Centre are just a couple of ideas). We need ideas from everyone, not just from a few. And we have to be prepared to make whatever changes we can, while keeping the city functioning.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures." - Anonymous

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