Well, we're most of the way through this year's budget process, planning our spending for next year. Our timing for the public review piece wasn't the best, happening the evening before Remembrance Day - never a good idea to have public meetings the night before a holiday. Then we had our meetings to go through the budget page by page on the Friday and Saturday of the same week.
This is the first time in my experience that we're this far through the process before the end of the calendar year. Despite the earliness, the budget documents provided were still more detailed than they have been in the past, which makes for better decision-making. And getting the process done so early means that the initial tax notices that go out, usually containing an estimate of tax due, will now be final, so that those who prepay before the end of January to take advantage of the slight discount won't have to pay the remainder of their bill in June.
I also found that there was a bit more give and take in the process. Just because a number had been put in the budget by administration didn't mean that we didn't make changes based on our discussions, which is how it should be. For example, administration had put in $60,000 for floral decorations. After some discussion, we knocked $20,000 off that - still higher than I think it should be, but at least it's one-third lower. I still don't get why some feel that it's good use of taxpayers' money to spend it on something that only lasts for four months of the year, and that has no measurable benefit. I'd have an easier time adding that money to the fix the waterslides fund - at least that benefits people directly, if for a shorter season. But in any case, we did discuss the expenditure, and it's not as high as it could have been.
But there is still plenty of room for improvement in the process. I would like to know why we can't have a standardized format from year to year - every year the information is presented differently, and we have to figure out where things are before getting a handle on what is being proposed. I would also like to see all of the relevant information in the requests from outside agencies, rather than having to pull information about grants and revenues from a separate document to compare them to the amount of money that is being requested. As anyone who has browsed through the various budget documents knows, it's a huge amount of paper to wade through and keep organized as discussions progress - any consolidation of information would be welcome.
Another thing that we found out in our meetings was that often, money in previous years has been set aside for capital improvements, but not spent. If we were to truly adopt zero-based budgeting, then unspent money would be added to money available. Had we known last year, for example, that money had been set aside in previous years for improvements to Kinsmen Park, but not spent, I would have had no difficulty in moving that money towards waterslide repair. It would also mean that various departments would have to get better at matching what they can realistically do in a year with their budget requests, to prevent going to the taxpayer before we have to.
We still haven't had the discussion about the final piece - the various flat taxes and levies that have been applied over the years. Two levies are done this year - the Pineview Terrace levy and the levy for the soccer centre, so we'll have to decide whether to continue these on under different names. There have been suggestions that the Pineview Terrace levy could be put into a reserve for future health-related expenses. And I've heard suggestions that the soccer centre levy could continue, to be used as a recreational reserve - we've all heard the requests for a new swimming pool, or a new arena, or $2 million for irrigation for the golf course.
I don't support flat taxes, as I've mentioned before, because they put a larger proportional hit on lower and middle income people - which is most of us. The soccer centre levy was there before - called the debt reduction levy - and I have no problem with putting money into reserves, as long as it isn't used to balance the budget after sloppy budget development, as has happened in the past. But I'm not interested in funding special projects for a relatively small proportion of residents, and figuring out how to pay ongoing costs for new facilities needs to be done before, not after, the construction money has been raised.
So stay tuned - even though the formal budget meetings are done, we still have more to talk about before the final numbers are known.
"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons." - Woody Allen