The tail wags the dog again

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In January, the CAO coupled a ‘sky-is-falling’ presentation about the town’s debt with a proposed 5.11 percent tax increase. *

Councillor Kevin Lloyd made a motion to have staff bring back two options for council to consider: a one and two percent increase to the general tax levy, with comments on how these would affect services.

Council approved the motion and directed staff to prepare them.

Instead, what council got at its Feb. 24 budget meeting was a wish list from staff for additional spending. The direction from council for a report on 1% and 2% increases was totally ignored by placing this material ahead of the report. (This report should have been presented this week so council could assess the wishlist in context, not as an afterthought.)

Council did not even get to see any department’s full, line-by-line, preliminary budget so it could make an informed decision on whether these items should be budgeted.

As a result, council wasted five hours wrangling over items and requests without even the slightest understanding of how these decisions would affect the overall departmental budgets or what their impact on our taxes would be. This is backwards.

Council also received a brief notice that the overall tax increase would start at 2.37 percent, but these additions are on top of that. All the savings made by the last council could be wiped out in a single budget this term.

Listed in the document’s “unavoidable” costs was a staff increase of 2.25 percent. Why is this unavoidable? The town doesn’t need any new staff and after years of receiving automatic increases, municipal staff could easily shoulder some of the burden and do without an automatic increase for a year. It’s not like they are underpaid: most municipal salaries soar over their counterparts in the private sector (the CAO withdrew his request for an executive assistant – at a starting salary of $82,400! – but the report retained a request for a part-time, 20-hours-per-week cashier position at a starting salary of $36,895! ).**

This is troubling not only because council is making uninformed decisions about your taxes without any of the crucial data necessary, but also because staff ignored council’s direction. Yet most councillors seem content to be ignored and work in the dark. Only Councillor Lloyd raised his voice in protest.

Here we are in March and the budget cycle for 2015 is barely started. It won’t be completed for at least 60 more days, maybe longer. There’s something seriously wrong with this process. Why can’t budgets be presented before the year they relate to? Other municipalities do it. Private sector firms can do it. Why not Collingwood?

During my time in office, attempts were made to rejig the process so that at least preliminary budgets appeared before council in November for the year to come. But there was considerable resistance from staff to such efficiencies. It seems that reluctance is continuing, and I don’t hear any other voices raised at the table to fix it this term.

The budget is big, dense and difficult, but it’s the most important thing council will debate in any year. To do it effectively and efficiently, it requires both effort and a tightly controlled process. The 2015 budget is receiving neither. Council has to take the responsibility and put on their big-kid’s pants to remind staff that they, not the administration, are the collective boss.

~~~~~

An inflated figure, by the way, because he conflated the town’s actual external debt – the only thing counted as debt, according to the town’s own auditor – with the internal ‘debt’ – money that was drawn from reserves and can be repaid or not at council’s discretion. See here for more on the debt.

** The Fraser Institute published a report this week noting that, on average, salaries for public sector workers in Ontario were 11.5% higher than comparable salaries in the private sector. I don’t know if that reflects all municipal salaries, but I was surprised it was not much higher than 11.5%! The town presented a request on p. 15 to hire a part-time cashier at 20 hours a week for $36,895 PLUS benefits  – that works out to $36.90 an hour. Cashiers in local grocery stores get $12 an hour. That’s more than 200% higher!

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