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.

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