On Tuesday council has a full day of budget discussions planned. This may come as a surprise to those who think that we passed the budget before Christmas, but this is a separate piece. Or three pieces, to be more accurate. We'll be discussing the water, sanitation and airport budgets. These are kept separate because some of their funding doesn't come from tax revenues, but from direct fees - things like the sanitation fees on your water bill, landfill charges, and airport fees.
The original plan was to meet to discuss these budgets in January, but the departure of the director and assistant director of finance meant that the meeting had to be delayed for several weeks.
Regrettably, council never seems to want to dig into these budgets too deeply, or to see where efficiencies could be found. Similarly, administration has been reluctant to make any changes to what is brought before council - when I raise possible changes, the usual response is that they will look at my suggestion, but somehow, the next year, things remain the same.
For example, for several years now I have suggested that we change the way that we pick up yard waste. Right now, there is a special truck that requires three guys who then drive up and down back alleys and streets looking for clear plastic bags, on no set schedule. In fact, this past year, they got so far behind that they had to go out on a weekend to make their pick-ups - on overtime, of course. I have suggested that we move to a service that would use the same trucks as are used for garbage and recycling. People who want this service could then subscribe, routes could be developed, and the single use truck that requires three guys could be sold. By doing this, a service that right now costs about $150,000 a year could pay for itself, by having the users pay, not be subsidized by everybody else. Saskatoon has adopted this exact way of dealing with yard waste.
After several years of making this suggestion, nobody at administration has told me that it won't work. One councillor has told me that you can't take away services, but that's just so much bull puckey. Many of us have had the way we get our mail delivered changed just this past year, and survived, and garbage pick-up has evolved over the years from individual cans to back alley dumpsters to individual roll-out bins to separating garbage and recycling. No way of delivering a city service is set in stone, and we should always be looking at ways to improve our efficiency.
And it isn't just suggestions that have been ignored - this council made a motion three years ago that water billing be done monthly. It was supposed to happen in 2014. It hasn't happened yet. Nobody on administration has bothered to tell us why they are ignoring a direction from council, and I can't help but feel that isn't how it should work.
I look at every budget as an opportunity to plan for the future. For instance, why aren't we planning to replace all back alley dumpsters with individual bins for each family, and setting out a schedule and required budget to do this? Both council and administration need to be less satisfied with the status quo - heaven knows one of the things everyone who runs for council talks about is the need for change, but once on council, the urgency for change seems to fade. It shouldn't - it's the only way to move forward.
"Budget - a mathematical confirmation of your suspicions." - A.A. Latimer