Council spent all day Friday and Saturday, from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon both days, going through the budget line by line. We went through two thick binders of budget material - one for capital expenditures, which includes things like equipment purchases, and the other for general operating expenditures, which includes things like labour costs and contracts.
Unlike in previous years, when we would set aside two days for this work, but then rush through things in one day, taking things in chunks, we had lots of good open discussion about specific items, and there were no sacred cows in what we were reviewing. Two long days, but I think that those who have been involved before found it a better and more rewarding process.
That's not to say that the process couldn't be made better. We weren't actually reviewing the whole budget - administration had already posted the base budget, and we didn't have the opportunity to review the line items in that budget, and find ways of cutting costs there. The base budget is much more than staff wages, as I found out when I went looking in the binders for the $40,000 that we spend every year on floral decorations - that's still in the base budget, and it's an item that I think could be reduced, but it wasn't part of our discussions.
I'd also like the opportunity to go through the base budget because that's where costs like snow removal and street sweeping are. The general operations budget often speaks to adding funds to those items, but without being able to see what current costs are, it's hard to evaluate whether the proposed additional costs are reasonable.
Assuming that current expenditures will remain as they are is an assumption that we can't afford. We have to look at finding efficiencies in how and where we're currently spending, because, unfortunately, we can't afford everything on everyone's wish list. We have to be very careful to distinguish between wants and needs, something that the previous council didn't do very well.
Spending from specific reserves also needs to be scrutinized more closely. We tend to pass these without much discussion, since the money is there, in a reserve. But we can't forget that this money came from the tax payer, and needs to be spent just as wisely as the taxes that we're proposing to collect this year.
The service review that we had in early March was a good start, but unfortunately it didn't affect anything in this year's budget. I think that next year we should do the service review earlier, then use that to give administration budget direction - maybe something like reduce costs for a specific area by a certain percentage. I would also recommend against putting out preliminary numbers on what the tax increase will be. The base budget made public a few weeks ago stated that a 3.6 % tax increase would be necessary just to keep pace with wages, but it also assumed the status quo on all expenditures in the base budget, and left out the fact that council had yet to review the capital and general operating budgets.
By next year's budget, we also should have made decisions on how we will deal with all of the buildings that the city currently owns, and have utility and sanitation costs included for all departments and facilities. We will then be able to factor these costs in when setting user fees, which should reduce the burden on the tax payer. I would also suggest that all facilities should be required to establish reserve funds in their budgets, so that future capital expenditures are more manageable.
So what's next in the budget process? Administration now has the job of putting forward various options for proportional and flat tax increases, in various combinations, which will then come back to council for further discussions.
It's a long process, and particularly for those newcomers to council, I'm sure it's overwhelming at times. And the decisions are not easy. But line by line, item by item, we're doing the job that we've been elected to do - keeping that in mind makes the decisions easier.
"It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it." - George W. Bush