Sunday, April 8, 2012

And the Budget Process Gets Even More Confusing (if possible)

At last week's Executive Meeting, a bylaw setting the mill rate for this year's tax rate was put forward. This is the bylaw that gives council the authority to tax property, the largest by far funding source for city activities. The vote on the bylaw was tied, as one councillor was absent, and a tie vote is considered to be a defeated vote.

The proposed tax rate increase would still the same one that the mayor floated by council members in an email, asking if we could live with it - 3.96%. I've yet to see any justification beyond that for the number, or any explanation of the difference between that number and the 5.5% increase that we were told was the minimum required to maintain the status quo, let alone catch up on past neglect.

Now, this process may be confusing to those who are aware that the budget was presented at a council meeting in February, as a recommendation from the budget committee (which consists of all council members),and was voted on as a motion of council, although two members of council were missing. The assumption would be that, at the next council meeting, which wasn't until mid-March, the budget would be given the necessary third reading, and passed. But that didn't happen; in fact, nothing about the still unfinished budget process was mentioned over the last six weeks.

That's because, once again, process has been changed, for no apparent reason. In the past, the budget has been presented, along with the bylaw (that's the part that sets the actual mill rate, and makes it legal). This time, there was no mill rate bylaw attached to the budget (or explanation for its absence). I think that the expectation of most members of council was that, as has been the case in the past, a special council meeting would be called, where the whole thing, including the mill rate bylaw, would be voted on. That didn't happen.

So at last week's executive meeting, all that was brought forward was the bylaw to set the mill rate, without any budget attached. It's fair to say that this change in process, without any explanation, is a bit confusing, particularly when one remembers the February vote. However, when the end is used to justify the means, one shouldn't be surprised.

Of course, we've had a couple of unpleasant financial surprises in the time between when the budget was developed and now, and that has only added to my list of reasons for why I can't support this budget.

The first, and most obvious, is the additional costs incurred with the boil water advisory. Things like staff overtime, additional water testing, cleaning all the reservoirs, contracting outside expertise to help through the process - all the costs haven't been accounted for, but initial estimates put it at $300,000 plus.

Another concern that received very little publicity, more or less lost in all of the water crisis excitement, is the effect that the census results will have on the budget. The budget was developed with the assumption that Prince Albert's population would increase considerably after the new census, resulting in additional grant money from the province, which is based on per capita population. The new census number did not increase as expected, and as a result, our budget will be short another $300,000. The result, I suppose, of counting chickens before they're hatched. In hindsight, I'm sure that city administration is regretting not taking some of the additional steps to improve census participation that were suggested by some who were trying to be helpful.

Add those to my original, still valid reasons, for being unable to support this budget (purported savings from delaying maintenance activities that haven't been identified, no attempt to decrease spending on non-essentials like floral decorations and paid radio advertising, a 40% increase in funding to the Rawlinson Centre without adequate financial information being's a long list, but that's a start), and, to nobody's surprise, I still can't support the budget bylaw.

To me, it doesn't matter that it's late in the day. I've been raising these concerns for months, and they're still valid. Passing a budget that we know will be inadequate is wrong. Other members of council may conform to whatever arguments or pressures are brought to bear, but to me, going along with the majority is not a compelling argument for not doing the right thing.

"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." - Harper Lee

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