One of the things up for debate on Monday night at St. Catharines Council is the establishment of a new Standing committee for the City’s budget process (report here).
In the past (this year included) Council has used an Ad-Hoc budget committee process; the committee was formed each year in December by Council, voting for 5 Councillors to join the Mayor in going through the budget process during January, February and March. These Councillors would generally deal with the Rates and Fees by the end of the Council schedule in December, and then get into the next year’s budget numbers by the end of January. The Actual number for the previous year’s budget would be given to the committee towards the end of the process (end of February, typically), and a recommendation would be sent to Council at the beginning of March, to be debated, amended and passed somewhere between mid- and late March. There are a number of issues I have had with this process over the 4 and a half years I’ve been on Council.
For starters – the City is a 106+ million dollar Corporation; there should be a committee of Council working on next year’s budget year round. One of the problems the City currently has is that, when the ad-hoc budget committee begins working, a portion of the year they are budgeting for has already passed. By the time the budget is sent to Council, in many cases almost 25% of the year is over; even if Council wants to make alterations, they will not have the impact many believe they would, because money has already been spent.
Another issue arises with respect to the Actual figures. When they’re received by the Ad-Hoc budget committee, most of the decisions have already been made. In the event of surprises (like we had this year) there is a very little time left to make changes to the budget without causing a ripple effect of problems across the corporation.
Additional to these, there is the learning curve involved in re-creating a budget committee every year. In many cases, the committee has new members, and they need to receive a crash-course in budget committee working to get up to speed and make a contribution. By establishing a year round committee, if and when new members are added to the committee they would have time to get up to speed on what is happening around the table.
Finally – and most significantly – a Standing committee eliminates the ‘once a year’ mentality that exists with an Ad-Hoc budget committee. Truthfully, every night is budget night; but perhaps in part due to the lack of a Standing committee, many on Council forget to consider the long-term budgetary impacts of their decisions. This year’s CIP, and the comparatively underfunded pervious years of the program, are a perfect example of this. In an effort to artificially lower the tax bill, short-sighted decisions to cut the dollars directed towards the CIP reserve required the last few year’s overcompensation. Had the CIP reserve not been cut in year’s past, the reserve would be fully funded to meet the obligation of the previous program, and there would be dollars available for this year’s program.
As it stands now, Council will need to continue to ramp up the CIP contributions to over 1.15 million dollars int eh next few years, just to meet previous obligations, without any new funding for the CIP. All of this could have been avoided if a Standing budget committee existed at the time to examine and remind Council of the consequences of those short-sighted decisions.
It’s my hope, and the hope of the rest of the committee who helped draft the report and recommendation, that this new committee will be bale to rectify this issues, and provide the City with a proper long-term perspective. Council has lacked that long-term perspective in the past, and our infrastructure and programming have suffered because of it. If we’re serious about building a City our kids will be able to choose to live in going forward, this is a good initial step.