By André Carrel
Twenty-six citizens responded to council’s public consultation on the 2023-2027 financial plan – twenty-six! Should we be disturbed that a mere 0.21 per cent of the population made the effort to respond to an invitation to comment on a budget projecting a tax increase in excess of 10 percent? Or should we be surprised that as many as twenty-six made an effort to respond?
The community charter requires that a bylaw to levy taxes must be adopted by May 15, and that a bylaw to adopt a five-year financial plan must be adopted prior to the adoption of the tax bylaw. The closing date for submission to the city’s survey was Feb. 10, three months ahead of the May 15 deadline. At a glance this should allow council a reasonable time to consider whatever comments or suggestions citizens may contribute. The critical time-frame, however, is that citizens are given just 18 days to respond to the survey.
In mid-December council considered the “2023 Draft General Operating Budget Status” staff report wherein it was noted that “when the draft budget is complete we will move on to the community budget consultation phase of the budget process.” In other words, the citizens’ opportunity to comment comes after the draft budget has been completed, when the budget is ready to be adopted by Council.
Now consider that the 2023 budget consultation package is a 28-page document, spruced up with charts, diagrams, and, as could be expected, an endless stream of numbers. The city suggests the survey “should take about 5-20 minutes to complete, depending on the level of detail provided.” The information compressed into this document is the product of months of work by city staff relating to decisions made by council over many years. The city suggests that one minute per-page should be adequate for citizens to offer coherent comments on a multi-million dollar five-year financial plan!
An example is the page dealing with reserves. The city has a number of reserves “vital to maintaining our current service levels and maintaining and replacing our infrastructure.” Without information on the accumulated depreciation, the wear, tear and decay of equipment and infrastructure, can we comment on the adequacy of the funds held in reserve? Without information on the annual rate of depreciation, can we comment on the projected annual contributions to reserves?
Inadequate reserves promise a future of either more crumbling pavement and more ramshackle sidewalks, or more debt and rising taxes to pay for repairs, or a combination of these two options. With this in mind, the long-term financial consequences of proposals for new staff positions need to be examined. It is tempting to skimp on reserve contributions to free up money to cover rising operating costs and hold the line on taxes. It is more difficult to eliminate a staff position once established than it is not to create it in the first place.
Meaningful budget consultation begins at key decisions points, such as the time when a new staff position is being proposed. Without extensive public debate at such a point, looking at all implications connected to such a proposal – from the presently perceived need to the long-term broad cost implications – the annual budget consultation mandated by the community charter amounts to little more than a feel-good exercise. If feeling good is the objective, a response by 26 citizens is fantastic.