Sunday, November 20, 2011

Budget Talks Before the Budget - What a Great Idea

On Thursday, council members spent the afternoon with city staff for some early talks about the budget. This is the first time in several years that we've talked about what some city services actually cost, and it was good to see more detailed numbers than we've had in the past. I appreciate the effort that staff put into developing this year's budget binders - it's good to have the additional information, and I know that some of the details were eye-opening for some of the newer members of council.

Having this information available led to the most open budget discussion that I can recall with the current council, and as I've said in the past, the more ideas that are put on the table, the better direction we are able to give city staff, and the better decisions we'll be able to make.

For some services, we were given costs going back a few years, for others, it was just last year's cost, with the projected cost for this year. Having costs going back a few years shows, for example, that our spending on floral decorations has more than doubled, to $38,000, over the last five years. If that kind of detail had been available for last year's budget talks, perhaps we could have identified that we would rather have put the money towards another, less optional, service.

Interestingly, costs for some of the more basic services, such as paving, haven't increased over the past few years. The result is that the gap between what needs to be done and what is actually done is increasing - and roads don't improve with age. This is what has put us into an infrastructure deficit.

And despite all the new construction, both residential and commercial, that has been happening, it was surprising to find out that our tax revenues haven't increased, because assessment decisions have been reversed through appeals processes.

City staff have projected that to maintain the current level of services, a tax increase of 5.5% would be required. This increase takes into account projected increases in staff costs, but doesn't include likely increases for capital and other expenses, such as fuel and utility costs. And as we all know, those costs go up, not down. And remember, the current level of some services is not enough to keep up with the work that should be done; it's just putting us further behind in keeping things functional. I'm sure we all remember what an unpleasant surprise resulted from deferring bridge maintenance work.

I was glad to hear from staff that they have been considering other ways of funding city operations besides tax revenues, such as looking at increasing costs to those who actually use the facilities. For example, those who use the soccer centre should have to pay for maintaining its parking lot. This is a good direction to go in, and I would go further, such as requiring that non-city residents pay higher user fees.

I think that we should also look at the total cost of running city buildings. Did you know that the only city building that pays for its water use is the library? Other buildings - City Hall, the Rawlinson Centre, the golf course, the soccer centre - don't even have water meters. This means that you, as a city resident, subsidize the water used in these buildings. Wouldn't it be a more fair approach if those who use those buildings had to pay for their share of the water? It also might lead to better water conservation initiatives. Perhaps the new water meters that we've decided to pay $86,000 for could be put into existing city buildings, so we can start to get a handle on the real costs.

As I said, this was the most open and informative budget-related meeting that we've had in several years. It revealed some problems, certainly, but only by getting a fuller picture of the actual situation can we develop solutions to these problems.

The meeting was also open to the media, which was a positive thing. I would have taken it further, and made it open to the public, since budget discussions affect the public most directly. It also would have been better if we had been given details on some significant areas of spending - we were given no details on police, fire, sanitation or water costs.

But it was certainly an improvement, and for those members of council who spent the whole afternoon there, it was well worth the time.

"A budget tells us what we can't afford, but it doesn't keep us from buying it." - William Feather

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