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