City Council spent two full days reviewing the budget proposed by administration a couple of weeks ago. As always, there was a massive amount of information to go through, hopefully line by line, and it's probably the toughest job of being on council, if done properly.
There are three things in the proposed budget that I find particularly objectionable. The first is the $4,000 that has been proposed that the mayor can hand out to people that he feels deserving. Why is this troubling? Because it puts control in the hands of one person, without any policy guiding it. Because it could be perceived as the chance for one member of council to buy favours, not a good thing, since we're supposed to follow policy and make decisions as a team. And it's troubling to me that only three councillors recognized the potential problems, instead hiding behind excuses like "we have to be compassionate".
I would be in favour of having a policy developed on when and how such discretionary funds should be dispensed. One example that was raised was someone who got a ticket for parking at Sask Polytechnic while donating blood. It ignores the many more people who did pay for parking, but if council thinks that parking for such worthy causes should be free, then a policy could be developed to hand out free parking passes at blood donor clinics. That would be fair, and easy to implement. In fact, there might be many such reasons for which parking could be made available - I know that Andrea used to get passes for people attending meetings in city facilities, such as the library. And keeping individual decisions out of the hands of members of council would remove any implications of favouritism.
The second area of concern is the idea of using reserves to pay for current operating expenses - the increase in the police budget. Reserves are set up for specific reasons, and using them in this way has two unfortunate results. First, it takes away money from purposes that have been identified - for building maintenance, for example, which we're already behind on. Second, next year that reserve won't be there. Taxes will have to be raised both to meet the current increase and the inevitable one that will be requested, and likely approved, next year. Best to be realistic and practical about what actual costs are, and raise taxes accordingly. I know that nobody likes to pay more taxes, but delaying the pain only makes things worse in the future, and will make dealing with emergencies more difficult in the present. It's interesting that Saskatoon actually has a bylaw that prohibits using reserves for current operating expenses - something that Prince Albert should consider, to prevent this kind of potential abuse.
The third area is the proposed increase from the province for police services, that will be used for traffic patrols outside of town. I would much rather direct extra dollars to where people have indicated the need is - more action on activities within town, such as increasing patrols and actions in residential areas. That one might be more difficult, since it's coming from the province with strings attached, but I think someone on council should have raised the point.
The budget has not yet been passed, and will have to wait until January for a full quorum of council to be present. Some may think that because the budget committee votes on the budget that it's a done deal, but that isn't so. What can happen at the council meeting where the actual vote will happen is that council removes questionable expenditures from the budget at that time. Council needs to remember that their job is to lead, not follow whatever administration thinks should be done. I know that if I were there, I wouldn't support all the aspects of the budget, and would have asked more questions.
So if you have concerns, call your councillor and raise them. That's the opportunity for every citizen, and a good chance to find out what your councillor really thinks.
"The trouble with a budget is that it's hard to fill up one hole without digging another." - Dan Bennett