This year's budget process is turning out to be much more open and thoughtful than it's been the last few years, which is a welcome change.
City staff have prepared a draft budget, which is posted on the city web-site. This is basically just the status quo, based on past years' budgets. It indicates a 3.6 per cent increase, presumably for wage increases. However, council hasn't even started looking at this document.
Our first step, in meetings held this past Thursday afternoon and evening, and all day Friday, was a service review. We looked at current services provided by the city, and asked questions of administration and department heads about where possible savings could be found through operational efficiencies. We also talked about where cuts could be made in certain programs - a line of discussion that certainly hasn't been encouraged in the past. I think that it speaks well of the current council that we have realized that an important step in establishing a budget is looking first at where the money is going, and finding efficiencies there, rather than assuming that setting tax increases is the only way of dealing with city problems.
And there seem to be no sacred cows any more - our discussions covered the full range of where city money is spent, and we seem to be prepared to look at everything in detail in the hopes of saving money. This too is a huge change in perspective, and one that I have been advocating for some time.
We're also looking at areas that have been neglected in past budgets - street maintenance is probably the most notable area that has been underfunded for several years, and the current state of our streets is a sad testament to the results of this sort of neglect. I'm hopeful that this year's budget will start to reverse this trend - the longer we put things off, the more expensive the repairs will be. I've also asked that the current state of city trees be reviewed - the windstorms of the past two summers have shown the extensive damage and resulting costs that occur when we don't manage our urban forests.
At next Monday's council meeting, we will hear from some of the groups that get funding from the city, with their positions on funding that they need for the upcoming year. It's also an opportunity for the public to comment on the draft budget. While I'll admit that going through the budget line by line isn't the most fun way to spend an evening, it is eye-opening to see the choices and decisions that have to be made, and if you have concerns about how council decides to allocate your taxes, this is your opportunity to let us know your thoughts.
And once we've received the input, then hard decisions will have to be made. I'm hopeful that the current atmosphere of openness and respectful discussion will continue, and that the resulting budget will be one that all members of council can support.
"A budget tells us what we can't afford, but it doesn't keep us from buying it." William Feather