Sunday, March 24, 2013

Really, I Don't Hate Flowers

At the end of our two days of budget review meetings, I asked where in the budget was the $40,000 that previous councils had allocated each year for the last six years for floral decorations. I was told that it was in the base budget – in other words, administration had assumed that past expenditures were to continue, without any kind of review, so had left it in there, while claiming that a 3.6% increase in the base budget was necessary. As I said in my previous post, this is a basic flaw in our budgeting process that we need to fix – we have to look at everywhere we’re currently spending money, and reduce where we can, as a first step in the budgeting process. The process has to include more than deciding how big the tax increase is going to be.

And then I finished by saying “I hate those flowers,” a quote that the local media was quick to pick up on.

Of course, I don’t hate flowers. What I hate is what that expenditure symbolizes to me – style over substance, image over content, wants over needs. Those often seemed to be the priorities of council for the past six years, and that’s part of the reason why we’re in such a difficult situation now, as we try to figure out a way, not just of keeping up with basic maintenance needs, but of making up for lost opportunities and higher costs due to past neglect and deferrals – of choosing style over substance.

So when the contract for floral decorations came up at Monday’s Executive Meeting, I took the opportunity to clarify my concerns. I started by saying that I’ve joined a 12-step program for flower haters, but then I made the serious pitch that we should not go forward with this contract, which isn’t even with a local company. I know that some might view the $40,000 as a pittance, but over the past six years, that single pittance has added up to $240,000 – money that could have been used for more permanent improvements or repairs. The flowers are a transient thing, lasting, at best, five months, with benefits that are impossible to quantify.

Other communities have found ways to beautify their cities without spending a heap of taxpayers’ money to do it. I understand that Moose Jaw has a voluntary program, and I’ve mentioned before the Heritage Gardener program in Andrea’s home town of North Bay, Ontario, where the entire waterfront – several kilometers of walkways and bike paths reclaimed from former rail yards – has flower beds on both sides of the paths put in and maintained by groups of volunteers, with the city only providing water connections at various points. I think that even the T-shirts provided to volunteers (my mother-in-law was one) were sponsored by an outside company. Ingrid lives in the Riversdale area of Saskatoon, and even her lower-income neighbourhood has public planters and rosebushes maintained by residents.  These are the sorts of initiatives that I think could work here, but which we haven’t looked into.

It’s important to remember that there are hidden costs over and above the $40,000 as well. The contractor may have provided the materials for the barrels of petunias that were set out in military precision in front of City Hall every year, but it was city crews that had to spend time setting out the barrels every May, and removing them every September. These costs don’t appear as a line item in the budget, but it’s time that those crews could have spent elsewhere, to greater effect.

When the base budget was first posted, we were told that it was made up only of labour costs. It turns out that’s not exactly the case.  There's a whole lot of stuff in the base budget beyond labour costs - snow- plowing, street sweeping, fleet vehicle maintenance, grass cutting, building operating costs are just some examples of costs that are in the base budget.  These examples would be considered essential, of course, although it is up to council, not administration, to determine the level at which these things are done.

The base budget also includes more non-essentials than just the flowers.  For instance, advertising costs are in there - a total of $235,000.  I wouldn't propose cutting the entire advertising budget, because of course we need to advertise things like tenders, hiring opportunities and things like the election information piece that went to every residence last fall, but some things, like the infomercials on local radio that the last council paid about $70,000 annually for, aren't necessary for the city to function, and I would propose cutting those.

Also funded through the base budget are facilities such as the golf course, the soccer centre, the Art Hauser Centre and the Rawlinson Centre.  Rather than just automatically funding these facilities at current levels, I don't see why we can't set targets for these facilities to reduce their budgets.  After all, they're already getting free water, sanitation, advertising and floral decorations.  If we expect city residents to tighten their belts so that they can pay higher taxes, we should expect no less from those who benefit from these higher taxes.

We need to change our whole attitude towards budgeting. And part of that attitude has to include the recognition that everyone involved, both council and administration, has to look at all our costs – big and small – to be able to separate the non-essentials from the essentials, the wants from the needs, the nice-to-haves from the must-haves. As I said earlier, several years of confusing these things has led to the current situation, and we need to act decisively to start to swing things the other way.

And if that means looking at the flowers as a starting point, then let’s do that.

"Where have all the flowers gone?" - Pete Seeger

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