My thoughts on the St. Catharines 2010 Draft Budget – Part 3 – Spending reviews

I don’t understand how, in the year 2010, municipal governments could still exist that don’t regularly tear apart the books.  Not your standard “Let’s go through the budget and see where we can trim” sort of thing, but an honest-to-goodness, “Justify EVERYTHING” kind of budget process.

I will preface my entire argument by saying that it would be unfair to suggest that money is being wasted hand over fist.  Most city workers undoubtedly work hard to keep expenses down.  With that said, however, I also have no doubt that people who work inside a bureaucracy develop two unfortunate habits: 1) they start to forget that it’s taxpayers money they’re spending, and 2) they start to think that because something has always been worth spending money on, it will always be worth spending money on.

And with that, I have to endorse the proposal put forth by the Chamber of Commerce in their budget presentation.  A comprehensive, regularly scheduled services review would force city managers and their staff to sit down and re-evaluate what is important within their departments and what no longer serves the purpose it was intended.  As the Chamber pointed out, the two departments that underwent this review process found cost-savings for the taxpayer.  This was not an anomaly; other departments will find savings as well, and those savings either need to be re-directed to the benefit of the taxpayer, or they need to be returned to the taxpayer; one or the other.

Furthermore, a policy needs to be put in place to ensure this isn’t a one-off process.  At a minimum of once each election cycle, comprehensive service reviews should be done by each city department, coordinated around budget time each year and staggered over the four years of the council.  This continual search for savings and a proper examination of just what it is the city offers would be a good way to offer all of us taxpayers in the city an explanation for just how and why our money is being spent.

Justifying where the money goes will never be too onerous a task for those who are spending other people’s money; it’s the proper way to do things.  A half-cocked demand for a “Zero budget increase” as council asked for this year is not sound budgetary practice; asking city bureaucrats to take a thoughtful look at how they can improve service at the city is.

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A little bragging, and some video

I had the opportunity to run in the “Coming together for Cancer care Run/Walk” this past week, put on by the new Running Room in St. Catharines.  A great event, a chance to raise some money for a great cause, a chance to meet John Stanton, and an unexpected opportunity for my son and me to be on TVCogeco.

We show up around 2:05-2:10 – I had to pull a wide turn with the jogging stroller to get us up through the finish line.  My little guy’s (and my wife’s) first race!

My thoughts on the St. Catharines 2010 Draft Budget – Part 2 – Sunday transit

Improved Sunday transit should have remained in the budget.

As it stands presently, transit runs from 10am until 6pm.  The St. Catharines Transit Commission had asked for funds in their budget to be allocated towards extending this service from 8am until 8pm.

I have previously spoken about the need for greater transit access in this region – transit is an example of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ service.  In the case of increased Sunday transit, however, demand already exists for extended hours of operation.  Ever since Sunday shopping was introduced in Ontario, more and more businesses have been filling a void in the workweek, and employees have been called upon to work longer hours on Sunday.  Just in the last several years, I’ve seen a number of local businesses expand their hours – a noon opening time 4 years ago has changed (in some cases) to a 7am opening time now.  With this movement towards longer Sunday hours comes increasing pressure on the Transit Commission to provide the services users of the system require.

The users, of course, are the employees and patrons of these businesses.  As was pointed out by the St. Catharines-Thorold Chamber of Commerce in their presentation to council, companies like Sitel (who employee over 1100 people) operate 7 days a week.  Employees need a dependable and affordable way to get to work.  And as an article today in the Standard points out, the job growth we’re all hoping will begin soon in the area will not be of the high-paying variety.  The people who gain employment are not going to be getting big wages, and personal vehicles may not be an option.  They will need transit service to get to and from work, and that will likely include Sundays.  With current service levels being what they are, it’s impossible for a person working an 8-hour shift to use transit to and from work; at least one trip will be other means.  Many shift-workers have no access to any transit whatsoever on Sundays.

The other users, the patrons, present an equally important issue for the Transit Commission.  In addition to needing people to get to work, business needs people to buy what they’re making, selling or providing.  There are still people in this city that don’t drive, for a variety of different reasons.  Keeping Sunday service at its now minimal levels forces many of those people to stay home or use far more costly modes of transport.  The most likely result is the former option, as opposed to the latter, and in the long run that will slow any economic growth we might hope for.  Longer hours of transit service can very well mean more people frequenting local eateries and shops, and that can turn into more jobs.

The problem with our current council, unfortunately, is this lack of recognition of transit as a priority.  The questions that councillors asked, regarding whether regional transit was more of a priority than local, or whether GO Transit should be at the top of the queue, or whether the new East-end route should come first, all missed the mark.  Improvements in transit, both regionally and locally, with new routes in town and new access to Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, must fall near the top of the City’s priority list if we want to attract new businesses to the area and foster economic growth and development.  Big companies are not going to want to set up shop in an area where potential employees will have hassles getting to and from work, and potential customers have difficulty getting through their doors.  The situation in St. Catharines right now, unfortunately, is exactly that.

Transit is not a frill.  In the same way that taxpayers subsidize road construction and repairs, we also need to subsidize public transit.  Rather than looking at this as an added expense, however, we need to wake up to the fact that City Council has its priorities mixed up.  It’s all well and good to worry about spectator arenas and Folk Arts buildings, but the core infrastructure of a city needs to be dealt with first and foremost, and transit is a part of that.  The sooner this council (or rather, a new one – to be elected in October) figures that out, the sooner taxpayers can feel like their money is being spent wisely.

In the next part, I’ll talk about the need for regular, scheduled, comprehensive department spending reviews, and how doing them could help find money for the projects city council is supposed to be working on.

My thoughts on the St. Catharines 2010 Draft Budget – Part 1

This one is going to take a few installments.

I am, by nature, a pragmatist.  I take my time in formulating my thoughts and ideas, and those thoughts and ideas are shaped by the conversations around me.  So the budget meeting on Monday night was informative, and brought up a lot different ideas that City Council has, unfortunately, passed on.

Some background first: it’s been widely reported that Council was “Aiming for zero” with this budget.  This isn’t a surprise; it’s an election year, and after three solid years of tax increases that exceeded inflation this Council needed something to show taxpayers they weren’t simply tax-and-spenders.

It’s completely in keeping with the average political will – when the job is in doubt (as it is every 4 years), better throw a bone to the taxpayer.  I don’t think us taxpayers will be happy with the bones thrown this time around, however.

The chopping block was quite long – most notably, the demand for Sunday transit service was chopped, and I’ll discuss that in a future post.  What bothered me and quite a few others, however, wasn’t strictly what was chopped – what bothered us was the way the Mayor suggested artificially dropping the tax increase this year to zero by taking money out of the Reserves funds (which already has a stated purpose), when there are other option available to do just that (or even include a tax break).

Lets begin by examining why Mayor McMullan and Coun. Gill were wrong to make their suggestion.  As several councillors pointed out, taking money from a fund that is earmarked already for things like road repairs – and this late in the process, given that the Mayor is a member of the budget committee – is flat out wrong.  Nothing more than an election-year gimmick, in fact, and done to try and impress voters.  This money has a purpose, and it isn’t for political grandstanding.  Kudos to the councillors who had the foresight to vote against this measure; shame on Councillors Gill, Foss, Washuta and the mayor for supporting this.

A big question for the Mayor and Council, given that ludicrous idea – with the huge amount of padding that appears to be contained in the last several city budgets (according to the Actuals from 2007 and 2008, approx. $4.4 and $4.3 million respectively), could we not find the money needed somewhere in departmental budgets?  It appears this money is not being used – what is it being budgeted for?  As the Chamber of Commerce pointed out, a series of regular, scheduled service reviews should be able to identify where the excess is coming from.  The cuts that would be made from this process would more than make up for budget increase of this year.

In fact, assuming 2009 Actuals are similar and this is in fact a structural surplus, much of what was cut from the original draft budget could be restored, along with being able to give taxpayers a tax cut this year.

Of course, that won’t happen.  But it’s what a City Council that’s dedicated to taxpayers SHOULD be doing.

In the next few days I’ll point out where, specifically, Council should be investing taxpayers heard-earned salary; I’ll finish today with something I said quite a while ago (the full point is here):

The budgeting process should be easy.  City Council sits down, determines what it is the taxpayers of the city require and are willing to pay for, checks that against what the different departments of the City need and what taxpayers are willing to pay for, and it drafts a budget from that.  I have no problem paying my taxes, and paying more in fact, so long as someone can justify to me why I’m paying them.  And the onus should be on the Council to do this, because it’s MY money.

I don’t want to pay for Councillor A’s wishlist, or the pet project of Councillor B, or some spiffy new toy for one department or another.  The problem in politics is that the politicians begin to forget that they’re not spending their own money – it’s money earned by all of us, placed in a common fund to help create a better city.

A little common sense and responsibility with our money would be nice.

Wasting time at council on more PDVC nonsense

This was an aggravating few minutes at council the other night, made more so by the fact that at one point Coun. Williamson seemed to indicate he wanted to publish the names of everyone in the city who was late in paying their taxes.  You know, as if a recession wasn’t a hard enough time as it is without the added stress of knowing you’re going to be outed as a tax delinquent as well.

I’m not too concerned with what back-tracking was done at the end of the whole exchange (and there was a LOT of back-tracking going on by Coun. Williamson when he realized he had zero support in council chambers); this was a witch-hunt from the beginning, designed to try and throw mud at a company that will be spending millions to add value to our community.  Whether you supported the Tower or not is of no real consequence anymore – it’s happening, and wasting time (and money – city staff had to prepare a report for this foolishness, at the taxpayers expense) on nonsense doesn’t help a single member of this community.

Shame on Mr. Darte and Coun. Williamson, and thank-you to Mr. Petrowski, Coun. Secord and Coun. Stack for very loudly voicing their disgust with this whole sorry situation.

New transit study – why?

I’m not quite sure why government always feels the best solution to a problem is more government – a self-serving motive, perhaps?  Further studies and consultants in the matter merely seem like an extra kick in the gut for already overburdened taxpayers.

The solution to the regional transit problem does not lie in yet another transit service being operated in this area, this time by the Region.  A 4th major operator is not required at all.  The simplest solution, if the three cities identified for the ‘triangle service’ want it, is to sit down amongst themselves and hammer out an agreement on route times and cost-sharing.  Then put it in to practice.

Transit is a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of idea.  If there’s no guarantee that the service will still be there in a year, I’m not very likely to ditch my car any time soon to take the bus.  If the region really wanted to get involved, councillors could commit some of the money they would have spent building a brand-new branch of regional government towards helping to fund the increased costs involved in the agreements between St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland.  By providing some additional money, those three transit services could guarantee that the service will continue for more than 6 months – maybe a 3 or 5 year commitment – and you’d be able to see a true test of whether this transit service is desired by local residents.

As a side note, from someone who lives in west-end St. Catharines and works in Niagara Falls – I’m seriously considering switching to public transit now that GO is a reality.  A little bit of extra time on my commute is worth it in the savings on wear-and-tear and gas for my car.

The bottom line in all of this, though, is simple – the region does not need to extend its tentacles any farther.  We simply can’t afford it.