Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Start of Tax Season

The first draft of the city budget is now available (you can download it from the city web-site), and a proposed budget increase has been floated out.  The actual budget still has to go through a detailed review with council, of course, which I think will be helped by the fact that we've gone through the various aspects of the base budget in great detail, in several focused meetings with the appropriate city departments - an educational process that was valuable to all of us.  Understanding the starting point for our spending is an important first step in budgeting that we haven't done often enough over the past few years, so looking at the detail, while time-consuming, is a major improvement to the process.

Just as with your household budget, even when you know the starting point, it only makes sense to look at that starting point, and see where efficiencies can be made, and I expect administrative staff to do exactly that - where can we cut current spending, while maintaining the same level of service, by finding operational efficiencies?  What are we still doing that we could stop doing, without any noticeable reduction in service?

Because, of course, after the base budget, we then have to make decisions on the various requests to do more, to fund more services, to increase programming, to build new facilities, to improve infrastructure.  This is where it helps to keep in mind what are city responsibilities, and focus our energies on those.  Our mandate is not to be all things to all people, but to choose those things which fall within our bailiwick.  There are many worthy causes and activities out there, but we aren't set up to solve all the problems.  We've gotten into trouble in the past by trying to duplicate services that are provincial or federal responsibilities - we just can't afford those sorts of well-meaning efforts.

I'm always surprised by the people who get upset over any tax increase.  They must think that the city operates in some magical parallel universe where costs for things like electricity, natural gas and fuel don't increase in price.  The cost of gas at the fuel pump goes up - the cost of keeping police and fire vehicles on the road goes up too.  Increases for electricity and natural gas  - we have to keep buildings lit up and warm.  And the cost of staff increases over time as well - even if we don't increase the number of staff, salaries and benefits go up.

I think that it's reasonable for taxes to go up every year, because the cost of living goes up every year.  I also think that we're in a situation where additional increases are needed to make up for past neglect of our basic responsibilities.  Where the discussion tends to get interesting and passionate is when we're thinking of going beyond the basics, of investing in new services or facilities that are going to increase the overall cost of running the city, in the long term.  How do we balance the very real needs that we have, with the understandable wishes for improvements that may not benefit the entire city.

This is where it gets difficult, because there is no one right answer - it's where city governance becomes more of an art than a science.  What I hope is that, no matter what our individual positions may be on any specific budget detail or proposal, we take the time to discuss the pros and cons thoroughly, and remember that everyone's viewpoint deserves to be heard with respect.  If we can do that, then our work on the budget and the resulting tax increase, will have been time well spent.

"Be wary of strong drink.  It can make you shoot at tax collectors...and miss." - Robert A. Heinlein

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