This week, the draft budget was posted on the city website, with a proposed increase of 4%. What many people don't realize, judging by the comments on various websites that universally slam council for this proposal, is that this is the budget drafted by administration - council had nothing to do with it. This draft budget is the starting point, based on what administration thinks it should cost to do the work of maintaining the city.
This is the draft that people have the chance to comment on. On Monday, after this week's council meeting, the various agencies that are funded by the city have the opportunity to present on their piece of the budget, and explain any increases. Then on Friday and Saturday, council as a whole will go through the budget, reviewing proposed changes to the status quo - the increases that administration has suggested.
Of course, this isn't really reviewing the budget, because it isn't reviewing how we're spending money now, and identifying areas where cuts to programs could be made, or efficiencies found. It is council's chance to lessen future expenditures, to question why new positions are needed, or why increases to program funding are essential.
It also isn't the final step in approving the budget - that will come later. And that's the opportunity to identify areas where we could stop spending money - positions that are now redundant that could be cut, programs that we're delivering that could be done more cheaply.
It will take some pretty good arguments from administration to convince me that any new positions are needed. I think that our staffing levels are quite high when compared to our population. I'm not sure why, when a position is vacated through someone leaving or retiring, city managers are not required to establish the necessity of that position before it is filled. And sometimes I think that positions are created or filled almost as insurance - I can't think why the city manager needs two secretaries, since I can remember when the mayor and the city manager managed with one secretary between them. And we have managers without any staff to manage, which makes no sense either.
One of the ongoing frustrations that I have with the budget is that we do it backwards - looking to spend more money before we look at where we could save. I know that there are some members of council who believe that once a service has been provided to the public, it can never be cut, which is nonsense. We need to look much harder at making services pay for themselves. For instance, right now we pick up grass clippings and garden waste in a totally disorganized way. Put a clear plastic bag of waste out, and a truck with three guys on it will pick it up. How about if instead of providing this extra service for no charge, and in the most labour-intensive way, we provide another bin, which can be picked up by one guy in an automated truck on a set schedule, just like garbage and recycling. If you want this service, it's an additional charge on your water bill. If you do your own composting, you don't have to pay for the service. As simply as that, we could remove a cost, and keep a revenue-neutral service.
I've said it many times - the budget is the most important thing that council does. But we don't do it alone. I would encourage you to go through the document, which is on the city's website, and if you see something that you think could be done more cheaply, or isn't part of what you think the city should be doing, give me a call. After all, it's your money that we're spending.
"Look at our society. Everyone wants to be thin, but nobody wants to diet. Everyone wants to live long, but few exercise. Everybody wants money, yet seldom will anyone budget or control their spending." - John C. Maxwell