Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some More Thoughts on the Budget

We had our first vote on this year's budget at last week's council meeting. The final vote won't happen until mid-March, as no council meetings are scheduled until then.

I voted against this budget, because I can't support many parts of it. It's unfortunate, because early in the process we were given valuable information about expenditures and projected building maintenance costs, but we didn't really follow through with any of this information in our budget discussions.

We're still not being given the police budget in any serious detail. This actually is the third format for the police budget in as many years, and it's still not laid out as clearly as, for example, the Saskatoon police budget. At least we aren't being told that it's illegal for us to see the details, which we were told three years ago. But changing formats, while not providing much detail, doesn't help in the interpretation.

The format for the capital budget was changed this year as well. It makes it difficult to compare year over year changes, as well as to track where certain expenditures are. Working through a budget of several hundred pages is difficult enough without such changes. I wish that the energy used in coming up with new formats instead went to figuring out where money could be saved.

These are process and presentation problems, but the more serious problems that I have are with the inadequacy of what is being proposed, as far as making a realistic attempt at developing a budget that will allow the city to take care of its current obligations, while setting something aside for emergencies and planning for future needs.

I'll give a few examples.

The budget assumes that expenditures for certain items will remain the same, even though we know that these same items will increase in cost. We know that the cost for snow removal will likely increase because of increased costs for staff, equipment maintenance, fuel, sand and salt; we know that we ran out of snow removal money in November; we know that this winter, luckily for us, was extremely easy as far as snow removal goes; but the budgeted amount for snow removal is the same as last year - $490,490. That's as short-sighted as assuming that fuel costs for your car will remain the same, even as you can see the price at the gas station increasing.

Another oddity - our budget for street-sweeping has actually decreased. When I asked for an explanation, administration didn't have one. As far as I know, we still have the same number of streets (and more, with new development), but somehow we think that this can be done for less money.

Speaking of being short-sighted, we are planning to make no contributions to the fiscal stabilization fund. This is a fund to which contributions should be made every year, so that when an emergency does occur, such as a blizzard, or a windstorm, or even a water treatment issue, we can access this money, rather than going into debt or telling the taxpayer that they're going to have to pay more. I'm sure that some will say that the water utility fees should handle the water treatment issue, but let's be honest here - it's all money coming from the taxpayer, and in an emergency situation, wouldn't it be nice to have money there to access?

Six years ago, we had more than $2 million in the fiscal stabilization fund. Last year was the first year since then that we directed any money back. That fund is now at about 10% of where it was six years ago, having been spent on such emergencies as Neat and Clean and new carpeting and furniture at City Hall. So, even when you have such a fund, council has to understand that it isn't to be used as a slush fund for nice-to-haves.

And finally, I feel that we are still spending far too much on non-essentials, and falling further behind in maintaining infrastructure, even after being informed of how badly we are underspending in these basic areas. Individually, some of these numbers may seem relatively insignificant in the total budget, but if we hadn't spent $40,000 each year on floral decorations over the past six years, we could have put almost a quarter of a million dollars towards road maintenance. The $50,000 that goes to advertising on local radio means $300,000 that could have been redirected to something more important to the tax payer than a once a week infomercial.

As a councillor, I cannot support a budget that has all these problems, particularly when none of them are unsolvable. It's unfortunate that no council or executive meetings are scheduled while the mayor is on his annual winter holiday. It's time wasted, time that could be spent as a council trying to find solutions and improve the budget, rather than just marking time until mid-March, when the sadly predictable final vote will happen, and council once again approves an inadequate budget that will allow money to be misspent and infrastructure to continue to deteriorate.

"A budget is telling your money where to go, rather than wondering where it went." - John C. Maxwell

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