Sunday, April 29, 2012

What I Hope We've Learned from This Year's Budget Process

Well, the budget is now done for another year, after the budget bylaw was passed at a special council meeting last Monday.  That it passed wasn't a surprise for anyone involved, despite its defeat through a tie vote at an executive meeting two weeks earlier - we all know that votes at executive aren't the final word, and some council members are known for changing their minds when things come to council, for whatever reason.

But now that the process is over for another year, I hope that all involved, both council and administration, have learned from the experience, and will try to do better next year (or at least, those who are still around after this fall's election).  I have a few specific suggestions where we could build on some of the things that happened, both good and bad, in this year's process.

First, having more information helps in making decisions.  The financial information that we were given by administration before the budget process even started was quite enlightening, and was more detail than has been provided in the past few years.  Of course, once that information is available, it should be used more than it was.  I was disappointed that, even though we were given numbers related to the amount that needed to be in the budget to maintain roads, for example, the numbers in the final budget didn't seem to take that into account.

Second, don't make changes at the last minute, without a map showing how the change being proposed will affect the rest of the budget.  The way that numbers were being juggled over the last month reminded me of a shell game, as we pulled money from various projects or unspecified maintenance activities, to satisfy the wants of a few special interest groups and make up for unexpected shortfalls.  If we decide to make those changes, fine, but we should be able to say exactly what is being sacrificed, and why we feel that other uses, heard from late in the process, should take priority over previously identified needs.

Third, any facility that is supported by taxpayer dollars should have to provide full financial records and budgets to both council and the general public.  This year was the first time in six years that council was shown financial records (for 2010) for the Rawlinson Centre, after years of inquiries and requests.  However, that information was  provided in camera, rather than openly to the public, for reasons that still aren't clear to me.  Hopefully we'll see their financial records for 2011 soon, and a budget for the upcoming year, such as is provided by the library, should also be required. All facilities should have to follow the same rules before they get a share of tax revenues - that's fair to the facilities, and it's only fair that the public can see where their money is being spent.

And finally, no-one involved should count chickens before they're hatched. This year, revenue assumptions were made based on population numbers that were not confirmed by the census. As a result, we ended up about $300,000 short, and had to scramble to produce a budget that balanced. It's kind of like when we go ahead with a project assuming that federal funding will be available, then find out that we've been turned down, so have to find the money elsewhere.  Far better to make decisions based on a worst-case scenario, then be pleasantly surprised when revenues are higher than planned, or funding comes through.

As I've said before, preparing a budget for the city is like preparing your own household budget, although at a much larger scale.  But the same principles apply, and one of those principles is figuring out how to do it better the next time.

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." - Douglas Adams

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