Sunday, December 14, 2014

Putting the Budget To Bed

The budget passed at last Monday's council meeting, and for the first time in nine years I was able to support it.  Not that it's a perfect budget - there's plenty of room for improvement in both the process and the result, but I think that some changes were made in the right direction that were worthy of support.

For me, one of the major improvements was the adjustment to the roads improvement levy for the commercial sector.  I think that our approach to the commercial sector is too disconnected - perhaps because, unlike residents, businesses don't vote.  The way the roads levy was originally set for the commercial sector, small businesses paid $700 annually, and large businesses $7,000.  You don't have to be a financial expert to know that a small business might not clear $700 in a day, whereas a large business like WalMart clears $7000 easily before noon.  It's a demonstration of the inherent unfairness of flat taxes, and we've taken steps to start to correct that unfairness.

The small business levy has been reduced, and there are more increments as the size of business increases, rather than the three levels that there were before.  Personally, I believe that the way to go with the levy for both businesses and residents is to assess the way taxes were traditionally done - at least this is a step in the right direction.

The Pineview Terrace levy is gone, and the soccer centre levy should end at some point this year.  Unfortunately, we didn't discuss the options for dealing with both of these - I know that some members of council have suggested that we continue the soccer centre levy as a reserve for future capital projects, but it remains to be seen what will happen with this levy.  Personally, I'm not happy with leaving this loose end, but some of my colleagues thought that two days of budget deliberations was quite enough.  I know that it's tiring, but that's how the job works.

In any event, we have a relatively small tax increase of 2 per cent, and small businesses and those residents whose home has a lower assessed value should even see a small decrease - always welcome news to the tax payer.

So what changes to the process would I like to see for next year?   Well, as I've already mentioned, more work needs to be done on the commercial side, to deal with the inequities that remain.  We need to remember that small businesses are the ones that are owned by local residents - the profits tend to remain in the city, and we need to encourage this sector.  I'd like to see the other flat tax, the $60 one, clearly ear-marked for snow removal, and set according to what is actually required.  Last year, we said that half of it would go to snow removal, with the remainder left for undisclosed purposes - if we have to have a flat tax, let's at least dedicate it to a definite purpose, and set it accordingly.

I also expect administration to look at organization and staffing.  It seems that we're continually asked to increase staff levels, even though the city population isn't increasing at the same rate.  I would rather see the city manager focus on ensuring that staff are organized efficiently, and that when a position is vacated, for whatever reason, a case is made for the continued need for that position, rather than just filling it automatically.  Administration has to get on side with the idea of continual improvement - too often I get the sense that status quo is quite all right with many of them, even as the world is changing all around us.

But, as I said, this year there were many improvements in the process.  I hope to see as many next year, so that I can again support both the process and the result.

"Budget - a mathematical confirmation of your suspicions." - A.A. Latimer 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Committee Appointments, the Democratic Way

Last week's Executive Committee meeting was the time when new committee appointments were decided.  As we're mid-way through the current term of council, it seemed a good time to take stock, and see if changes were appropriate.

Committees are different from when I was first on council.  Committees of that time, like Finance, or Works and Planning, which used to meet separately and then make recommendations to council, have been replaced by Executive Committee, so that matters now come directly to council.  And some committees that were in place at the time of the last election, like the Beautification Committee, were determined to be redundant, so no longer exist.  Many of the committees are not committees of council, but rather are external committees that have city representatives.  I don't think that there's any perfect committee structure, so it's good that the city has control, for the most part, over how committees are set up and their membership.

This council does committee appointments quite differently than the previous council.  Rather than the mayor making all the decisions, and handing out committee appointments like favours, this council has a two step process.  First, each member of council decides which committees they would be interested in being on - there's not much point in putting someone on a committee if they're not interested in being there.  Then, council as a whole votes on which councillor will be on which committee - it doesn't get more democratic than that.

The result this time, for me, is a bit of a change.  I remain on the Police Commission, and now represent council on the Downtown Business Improvement District committee.  Since my ward borders the downtown, and Laura at the Bison often teases me that I'm there so much it's my unofficial office, I'm looking forward to working with downtown businesses on revitalization ideas.  And I have a feeling that I'll continue to go to Saskatoon Airport Authority meetings, representing the mayor, who often has conflicting demands on his time.

In my time on council, I've been on most committees.  I think that, to be valuable, a committee has to do more than meet - it has to set priorities, and work towards making sensible recommendations for council to act on.  I get the feeling from some of my colleagues that they see some committees as having some sort of higher status, but I don't buy into that kind of thinking - like many status-related things, the glory is mostly in individual's minds.  The public is rarely aware of who is on which committee, or in what each committee is responsible for.  Committees are mostly in the background, discussing issues and sorting through information, but making final decisions remains a council responsibility.

Committees do provide valuable input, but it's best to keep the system flexible - don't have committees that duplicate work already being done elsewhere, don't meet unless there's something to discuss, and don't be afraid to disband committees that aren't doing anything - as long as council follows these guidelines, we won't be so overburdened with committees that we forget our real responsibilities.

"To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent." - Robert Copeland