Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Now There's a Thought - Let's Look at Our Spending

The blog has been quiet for a few weeks.  Andrea and I took advantage of a Via Rail seat sale which nicely coincided with her return to good health, to go to Ontario for a couple of weeks to visit family and friends.

On the agenda for my first council meeting back, there was a report on various tax tools that we could use to get more money out of tax-payers' pockets.  I saw this as an opportunity to suggest that, instead of thinking that our only solution to financial problems is to hit up the taxpayer, we could instead examine how we currently spend money, and see if there are efficiencies to be found there.

I suggest this every year as we're going through the budget process.  Every year this suggestion has been ignored by most members of council.  The assumption has been that we will continue to spend money as we've always spent it, even though, when times are tough, we might not need to spend $40,000 each year on floral decorations, for example.  But we don't even discuss the necessity of such expenditures, or even if we could spend less, or if there are alternatives to having barrels of petunias set out on Memorial Square.

Imagine my surprise, when other members of council thought that this might be a valuable exercise (although a couple were of the opinion that this is already happening), and we have agreed to ask the city manager to prepare a report on how we could do this, and what processes other municipalities have used in such reviews.  Coincidentally, this was also the topic of a panel discussion at the pre-Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) meeting that many senior staff attended in Saskatoon this week, so they should already have picked up some valuable ideas that they can use.

I think that for maximum value, we want more than a service review, such as the one that Saskatoon went through this past year.  That was more of an evaluation of what areas of expenditure are most valued by residents.  I would like to see a review that combined that sort of evaluation with an examination of how expenditures could be made more efficiently.

For example, there's no question that police need to buy new vehicles periodically.  However, an examination of how such an expenditure is made could  show that other municipalities replace their police vehicles less frequently, or find that less expensive vehicles are adequate for police work - that's where real savings could occur.

Are staff being used most efficiently?  Previous mayors managed to share one secretary with the city manager.  Now, the mayor has two secretaries, the city manager has one (plus other staff with vague job titles).  Are all these support staff really necessary?

I think that all areas of expenditures should be looked at - staffing, capital, operational.  For this to really work, there should be no sacred cows.

Along with most members of council, I'll be attending FCM in Saskatoon this weekend.  I'll be looking to talk with representatives from other cities to find out, not just how they've done such reviews, but how they've been able to put their findings into practice.

"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." - Abraham Lincoln

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