Rhino's Ramblings: Council's Odessa Bargain
In the port of Odessa (Ukraine) there is a tradition whereby you allow an opponent to have a public victory, while in the background, the other party privately gets what they want so everybody walks away happy.
So deeply entrenched is it in every Odessit's psyche, that when shopping in open-air markets, customers regularly demand deep discounts even though they know the price is already artificially inflated; its known as an Odessa Bargain.
Although Moose Jaw is no Odessa, it almost seems we may have just witnessed our own version of an Odessa Bargain, as City Council held an in-camera Budget Committee meeting Thursday night. And then, behind closed doors, worked out the final details of the 2018-2019 operating, capital and utility (water and sewer bills) rates. And yes, you read that correctly. After publicly inviting residents to attend budget meetings, which very few bothered attending, Council and Administration held a secret Budget Committee meeting and hashed out their differences.
Yes, it is true, on February 26th, a two hour televised Council debate led to a re-vote and defeat of the proposed 15 percent water rate increase and the entire budget itself. At that meeting, there was debate which pointed to the potential of some big changes coming. Plus a Council perhaps feeling the heat from rate-payers upset with a 5.01 percent property tax increase plus a 15 percent water and six percent sanitary sewer hike.
So, after being open and allowing the public and the media in for all their budget deliberations; they go from transparent to opaque in the blink of an eye.
So, really all we can tell you at MJ Independent is that Budget Committee agreed to property taxes going up 6.41 percent from an original status quo budget increase of 4.01 percent. But your water bill is only going up 9 percent instead of 15 percent and the sanitary sewer is going up six percent.
We can also tell you the intended water rate decrease from 15 to nine percent ($513,000) was made up with a 1.91 percent property tax increase. Plus no apparent cuts. Its likely not to be happy news with higher value assessed homes.
Given businesses are going through some tougher times right now, it cannot be sitting too well for commercial property owners.
But what discussion happened here to quickly hammer out a hotly and publicly debated budget will never be public.
We cannot tell you if there was any talk about cuts to services nor can we tell you if Budget Committee discussed hiring more people. Was there an Odessa Bargain cut in the background with other payoffs taxpayers cannot see? By not having the public attend the opportunity to know is gone and lost.
What happened, the debate, the reasoning for Budget Committee's decisions and how individual Council members voted sorry, despite MJ Independent being there throughout every budget related meeting we missed this one. We have let down our readers.
Apparently the email which would have alerted us to the special budget meeting was not sent out due to some type of mix up, so we could not wait outside until Budget Committee moved into a public meeting to vote as they must legally do. And if other media had it, why no report until after the press release went out? Did they choose not to attend?
Now do I personally believe Council was doing anything corrupt? No, I do not. But in my opinion, they have done nothing to quell the rumour mill about what has happened here. They have struck a major psychological blow against transparency and accountability that may in the future be harmful to the overall interaction between Council and residents.
Were there any trade-offs to hammer out a final budget? Was an Odessa Bargain made? And if so, what was given up in the background to quell Council members who voted to defeat the water rate increase on February 26th? Given the City's massive infrastructure deficit, were there any further discussions into redirecting additional funds there now or into the future? And what about services was anything mentioned there?
For instance, take a look at recent concerns regarding clearing snow covered streets. Now I can also tell you much of the perceived problem came from policies which had budget implications. With that said, did Budget Committee discuss snow clearing and changes to the budget to make snow clearing quicker if it happens again? Sorry, nobody knows.
And here is the real kicker, if anyone who attended the in-camera budget meeting ever publicly reveals what was said and discussed, they've broken the rules. All they can publicly do is grin and bear it.
Ironically, the new tentative budget was released on a Friday, typically the day government announces bad news, and set to be ratified at Council this Monday night. Meaning little media coverage or opportunity for citizen involvement.
Maybe that is the Odessa Bargain a budget passed with silence.