Sunday, February 5, 2012

It's a Budget Miracle!

One can't help but be amazed by the various miracles that have occurred throughout this year's budgeting process. I'm surprised that no one has leaped to their feet to shout Hallelujah - perhaps that will happen at the next council meeting, when we vote (to use the term loosely, since voting surprises are few and far between with this council) on the proposed budget.

You may recall that in late fall, we were given a much-welcomed financial overview by city administration, which indicated that, just to maintain our current level of spending, a tax increase of 5.5% would be required. This overview also showed that, in the critical area of street maintenance, our current level of expenditure was less than half of what is required. In other words, even with an increase of 5.5%, we would continue to fall behind in keeping our roads repaired.

To me, this very clear message meant that we should be looking at ways of decreasing current expenditures, and raising revenues through other ways, such as increasing user fees. Applying all three tactics - cut back on what you're currently spending, look at other revenue sources, and then figure out what tax increase is required, is the only sensible way to approach setting a budget.

I had, of course, not thought of the "relying on a miracle" solution.

Imagine my surprise when, even after we had been through the financial update with city staff, the mayor sent out an email to all the councillors, asking if we could live with a 3.9% residential tax increase. We did not discuss this as a group at all - the number just appeared.

And then, the budget that is brought forward contains this very same 3.9% increase, with no cuts to services, and only minimal increases to user fees. No credible explanation for the drop in what was required has been provided - in fact, we are now being told that we now have increased revenue from new developments, even though the financial overview that had just been presented indicated that the new developments were not providing any increase in revenue, due to assessment adjustments.

And the miracles continued. At the public meeting on the budget, several community groups came forward to ask for additional money. A concerned citizen came to the last council meeting, asking for more money for skunk control. And lo and behold, on the morning of the budget meeting, we found on our desks information that indicated that we had found exactly enough money to satisfy all of these requests! And where was this money found? Why, by taking it away from various maintenance projects (which weren't specified). Whether this is from building repairs, sidewalk repairs...who knows? Are they less essential than giving the museum more money to hire a full-time curator, or finishing the Rotary Trail? I would think not. But if you don't know what maintenance work has been postponed, you don't know what the costs and risks of postponement are, so you're being asked to make a decision without all of the salient information.

I did suggest that perhaps, if this money really isn't needed for that which it had been budgeted, it could be directed to where we know there is a shortfall - road maintenance. But no, most of council felt that it was better to give money to non-essential interest group projects. It is, after all, an election year (not that anybody said that out loud) - a time to spend money out of voters' pockets to show them how responsive council is.

I did find it rather ironic, at SUMA last week, to find that we consider infrastructure a priority, and expect the province to kick in more money to help. I'd feel better about such requests if we could demonstrate that, as a city, we're doing all that we can to spend your money wisely, before we go to another level of government, expecting them to cough up more of your money.

But that would be another miracle.

"The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it." - Norman Schwarzkopf

No comments: