Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Problem with Discretionary Spending

You may not be aware that, every year, the city has earmarked in its budget $50,000 to help fund community events.  Why I suggest that you may not be aware, is because this is a budget item that we don't discuss specifically.  It was set in 2009, I believe, and there are some guidelines around it, but we don't review it at budget time, to assess if it is enough, not enough or too much, or if the way it's been used is within the current policy, or if that needs to be revised.

The current guidelines are that it is supposed to be used for national or provincial events, but not for conferences.  In the past it has been used mostly for athletic events, with part of the justification being that the upgrading that happens to facilities then benefits the whole community.  However, when the vast majority of it ($48,500) was used a few years ago to help pay for the golf club's hundredth anniversary, some of the money was used to pay for participant gifts and refreshments - hardly spending that had any long term benefits to the average tax payer.

We currently have two events that are looking to use this money - another air show, and a proposed music festival to be held the long weekend in August.  Already, one of the main criteria for application has been missed for both of these events - application is supposed to be made a year in advance.  And both applications don't have the kind of detail that I would expect  - there should be an explanation of exactly what the money will be used for (gifts and refreshments are not appropriate uses), and what other financial arrangements have been made.  What often seems to be forgotten is that when city facilities are used, the tax payer is already providing support through in-kind provision of services, both with the facility itself as well as with staff time and equipment in both preparation and clean-up.

As far as I'm concerned, our allocation of this money should be as diligent as for any other budget expenditure - is this appropriate use of the money, that will benefit the city as a whole.  Have the applicants done their homework, or do they just see this as money for the asking.  Does this meet the policy requirement of being a national or provincial event, with the potential to bring people into the city who are going to spend more money.  In fact, I would question the current restriction against providing funding to help with conferences - I'm not sure why we don't realize that someone coming to the community to attend a conference is just as likely to spend money on meals and hotel rooms as someone coming here for a baseball tournament.

We also need to make the process of allocating these funds more open and fair.  Right now, it almost depends on having friends in the right places, who can help move the process forward.  That means that other, perhaps more worthy events, are left out in the cold.  Having an open process would accomplish a couple of things - it would spread the money around better, so that more functions would benefit, and it would help to remove the image that Prince Albert has - of being an old boys' club, where if you know the right people, doors open more easily.  As well, a more open process would remove the current perception of unfairness, and likely result in broader benefits to the city as a whole - something that we need to get better at making sure happens.

"After the government takes enough to balance the budget, the taxpayer has the job of budgeting the balance." - Unknown

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