Saturday, March 22, 2008

Needs First, Wants Later (if we can afford them)

To me, a basic rule of budgeting is to identify needs first, then, if there is surplus money available, allocate any surplus to wants. To use an analogy that most people understand, first you pay your rent or mortgage, power, groceries, and that sort of thing, then, if you have money left over, you buy the big screen TV.

The city budget should be done like that - the basics that we need (infrastructure, legal requirements) are identified first. Then, if there is surplus available, we worry about the non-essentials. I realize that many of these things may make the city more attractive, but a tax rate increase of 5.4% doesn't.

Even the needs can probably be pared down. If your power bill is too high, there are steps that can be taken to lower the bill. I think that when city departments submit a budget that includes increases that are higher than the rate of inflation, they should be asked to pare away until that target is reached.

Many of the wants in the budget are relatively small monetarily, but they add up. I'll identify a few items that I think are definitely in the want category.

I'll start with the operating budget.

First, the debt elimination levy, which is identified on everyone's tax bills. Over the five years of the project, it will total $4,386,000 of tax payers' money. Let's be clear about this - for the next five years (until the end of 2012), this money will be used to fund construction of the soccer centre. It will not be a debt elimination levy, which is money to be set aside to pay for future expenses. It will be money ostensibly identified for saving, which is already being spent. I've had a number of people tell me that the soccer centre will not require any tax dollars to be built - that's not the case. It's just not being identified as that. We won't be saving for future expenditures for that time period. And we're not even talking about how much it will cost to run the centre once it's built, or the additional half-time time staff person required to track donations over the four years, at a cost of $25,000 per year.

The riverbank grass-cutting increase - $8,580. We reduced this service a couple of years ago (it's on the side of the Rotary Trail closest to the river), and it hasn't affected use of the trail at all. In fact, areas left to grow provide more habitat for birds and small mammals, enhancing the trail experience.

Funds for Memorial Square events - $3,500. Why this is needed now, when we've had events in Memorial Square for years, is not clear.

Additional corporate advertising - $12,100. One of the advantages of the internet is the increase in people accessing web-pages rather than newspapers for information. We should be doing more on the city website, and less in newspapers, not more.

Various social "initiatives" - $25,000. I'm not doubting the need for action in these areas, but the information provided as to what we will be getting for our money is sketchy, at best. I'm wondering why these have such a heavy cost attached when we have a social development manager - presumably some of these responsibilities should be included in her salary.

Putting electrical outlets in the museum parking lot - $6,750. The museum is open for four months of the year. They have had two successful galas on the riverbank without additional outlets. I agree that they would be useful for events like that, and for other downtown activities, but I don't think that they're necessary at this time.

Additional golf course advertising - $2,520. When times are tight, advertising is one of the first items to go. Times are tight.

A request from the Arts Board to increase the grant to the Rawlinson Centre by $50,000, to $98,000. A grant from the Elks Club has run its course, and rather than look for an alternative, they have come to the city asking us to make up the difference. This is my concern for many of these entities that are started with great fanfare and volunteer contributions - building turns out to be the least of the costs. Operating a large facility costs money, no matter how many volunteers you have, and the city is expected to pick up the tab, sooner or later.

Not counting the soccer centre/debt elimination dollars, that's $133,450 right there that I think could use a serious second look. That's more than 1 mill on your tax notice.

Under capital expenditures, most expenditures are of the replacing or maintaining sort. Once again, I'm not sure how many of the replacements are essential at this time. Nothing lasts forever, and we need to be sure that city facilities are safe for staff and the public. However, not all identified expenditures are essential for safety reasons, and I think that the list should be looked at closely to eliminate anything that is not needed this year.

Improvements to the golf course at a total cost of $47,000. I don't golf, having enough frustration in my life, but I'm amazed at the amount of money that the city puts into a facility that is used by a small fraction of city residents.

$25,000 for computer hardware and software for a homelessness program. This seems to be a lot of money that could perhaps be used in more direct ways to benefit the homeless. It does come from federal funding, but money poorly spent is poorly spent, no matter the source.

And, of course, the soccer centre money should be in here, rather than identified as an operating expenditure and called a debt elimination levy.

Those are just a few of the items that I'll be questioning - I'll probably find more. Budget documents are long, complicated, and difficult to understand. The expectation that citizens would have sufficient time to access these documents and prepare comments for the public consultation process within four days was unreasonable. Anyone who managed that feat deserves congratulations, and our thanks.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Dr. Seuss


Peter said...

Keep up the good work, Lee!

Dannyboy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dannyboy said...

Very interesting information Lee.

Re: Lawn mowing on the river bank.
These services should be put up for contract.

Last year I watched city crews with two or three machines go over the same area within minutes of each other. This happened each time I observed them mowing there. I see this is an unnecessary procedure - causing wear of equipment, pollution from extra fuel consumption, extra fuel costs, joy riding, etc. Then the coffee breaks. It appears that a city official picks them up in a city-marked vehicle and takes them somewhere. Returning 30 minutes or more, later. Is this part of their contract?

This item needs a major evaluation NOW.

Time to tender out the lawn mowing services.

Keep the facts flowing.

Peter said...

The paper said over 11 million was being allocated by the city towards the soaacer centre; is this correct?