Sunday, November 22, 2015

Whittling Away at 4% of the Budget

Council spent Thursday evening and all day Friday going through administration's proposed additions to the budget.  Once again, we don't look at what we're currently spending money on, and figure out ways of finding efficiencies there.  We only look at the proposed increases, which to my mind is missing a great opportunity for change - finding programs that are no longer required, and redeploying positions to new priorities.  I know that this kind of budget would be much more work, but I think that it would give us a much better result.

However, the day and a half was well spent, in that we managed to whittle down the proposed 4% increase to somewhere around 1%.  I found it entertaining that one veteran councillor wondered if having an increase of only 1% the year before an election might be considered as doing this for purely political purposes, obviously forgetting his actions of a few years ago, when he fully supported a zero per cent increase, also the year before an election.  The difference this time is that we went through the proposed expenditures before announcing the increase, unlike a few years ago when the zero per cent was announced before we started budget deliberations.  I think there's also a recognition by most members of council that more money does not always result in getting more work done - there's only so much work that can be done in the available time with the available resources of equipment, people and weather.

In any case, we made the decreases largely by rejecting the new positions and expenditures proposed by administration.  My reason for turning them down has two parts.  For one, the business case for adding the new positions was not clear.  Nobody took the time in the proposal to explain clearly how making these investments would save money - the argument put forward that other cities have made these investments just isn't a good enough reason.  The second is that I don't believe that new positions are required - this city has an extremely bad habit of adding positions, but never deleting any.  The population of the city has certainly not increased proportionally nearly as much as the staffing levels at city hall.  Just as pegging the tax increase to the cost of living increase is a good guideline, I think that matching staff levels to population levels is probably a good rule of thumb.

I'd hoped that administration would look internally to figure out where redundancies are, and propose reallocating staff resources.  If they aren't willing to make that effort, then I'm not willing to have tax payers fund new positions while still paying for staff that may not be needed in their current positions.  For instance, the mayor no longer has two secretaries, but those positions were just moved - now the city manager has two secretaries.  Several years ago, a new position was created to track the donations for the new soccer centre - that position is still in the mix, somewhere, although getting a clear answer out of management on these matters is extremely difficult.

It wasn't all cutting, of course.  In some cases we identified areas where more work, and thus spending, is needed - sidewalk repairs being one, as a complaint that has been raised at several of the ward meetings over the fall.

Unfortunately, close to the end of our discussions, the loan to bail out the Borealis Music Festival was added to the mix.  I'm not sure why it was included as part of the budget, since it was presented as a loan that would thus be revenue neutral, and not affect tax rates.  I think that it was added in the hopes that it would be hidden, sort of like in an omnibus bill, and accepted by council, rather than being presented as a separate motion on its own.  Why some members of council feel that we should bail out the Prince Albert Tourism and Marketing Board, which is its own entity, is a mystery to me.  This board is not a committee of council, but a separately incorporated group, on which two members of council sit.  But we are not responsible for paying their bills.  I feel badly for the local businesses that have not been paid, but I feel worse for the tax payers who are now expected to further subsidize this event.  And I'm also concerned about the precedent that this proposed bailout would set - other functions that the city may agree to give money to may then come and expect the city to cover their losses.

The final vote on the budget will be at a future council meeting.  While, as always, I think that we could improve the process by digging deeper into current spending to find opportunities to cut, I do think that we've done a reasonable job in getting the proposed increases down.  With the exception of the inexplicably added music festival loan, this is a budget that I could support.

"A budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." - Jacob Lew

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