Rhino Ramblings - An 8 Percent Haircut

Robert Thomas Opinion/Commentary

It came at the last moment a motion by Councilor Brian Swanson, and backed up by the majority of Budget Committee, to finally do what the long discussed priority based budget was suppose to do and that is live within your means.

To finally recognize the basic realities out there and that is we are not only in a slow economic time but for many in this city they are barely hanging on.

So what Swanson has called for is the preparation of a confidential report looking at what effect cutting eight percent from expenditures would have on the overall budget and City operations. 

It was readily agreed to by Councillor Dawn Luhning who has for years called for the City to look at cuts or making City operations more efficient. 

Now here is the big thing people need to understand about the Swanson motion it comes upon year after continual year of increased expenditures by City Hall without much consideration of the long term sustainability. When times were good the City, buoyed by a favourable revenue sharing agreement and surcharges from provincial utilities, the City spent it seemed with little regard for the future. 

As Councillor Swanson has pointed out on several occasions the City has not had a revenue problem in the past it was an expenditure problem and the failure to spend in priority areas which has gotten the City into the mess it's in.

Over dramatic? Perhaps. But accurate? It all depends what you classify as priorities.

But take a look at funding and the painful budget the City did not finalize once but twice after austerity from the Province came out of nowhere. Council scrambled to stabilize the situation and throughout it all blamed the Province for the dire predicament the City found itself in but it also failed to really cut back. 

Remember the City by legislation cannot run a deficit. To balance the books they must either find efficiencies or raise taxes. 

With Moose Jaw massively impacted by the economic downturn we started to see an increase in tax arrears into record levels. Worse yet though very few tax debtors managed to work out payment plans with the City and that record property tax tardiness turned into record tax liens. The first step of the City taking back properties for non-payment of taxes.

People, not just low income people, but people who previously had good jobs are in major economic straights.

I recently spoke to someone who has a very expensive home which they bought because they had what looked like to be assured good jobs with the Health Region only to see their job eliminated when the Province created a single health region. 

The nightmare for them, and many others in similar situations, had arrived. They found lower paying jobs, listed their home for sale in an almost impossible market, and cut all extra spending. They need tax relief. 

Others who work in construction tell me about the nightmare of 2018 and things don’t look good for 2019. The Provincial construction tax has come at the worst possible time. Even the slightest rumour of work at a reduced rate has them scrambling to earn some much needed extra cash.

Despite what you might think what Councillor Swanson has for many hit the nail on the head. 

What he also knows is from last year’s Budget that Administration had prepared a list of things which could be cut from the budget without impeding the City's operations. Cuts could have been made last year but behind closed doors Budget Committee hammered it out and nothing was done.

The great gamble was made, in hopes of a rumoured economic turnaround, but the economic stagnation for the most part continued provincially. The hope for economic reprieve never materialized. 

Now here is the thing I can tell you I heard through my email mail out and that is people who in the past did not support Councillor Swanson are now to some extent doing so. 

I wasn’t around too much last week but I did manage to speak to someone I know who totally dislikes Councillor Swanson and his comments to me are in many ways telling.

I asked him what he thought about cuts happening and his response was in full agreement. Taxes, and the threat of increased property taxes, have stretched him to the breaking point at a time when his job is not as many hours as it once was.

“I don’t give a fuck. It’s not my problem. I’m tired of subsidizing,” he said when I told him cuts could potentially increase recreation fees. This is from a guy who a short year ago told me the exact opposite. That is the economic reality out there. And it’s not just Councillor Swanson but three others who can see it as well.

For what many would call the Entitlement Generation it must be a shock to discover the people who pay the bills are now saying “ummmm it’s not happening.” 

Now here is the thing about Swanson's motion. There is nothing in it one iota which says if the report is prepared the Council must adopt it. It’s just a report and nothing more than that. It is so far Budget Committee and if approved Council who wants to know all of the options in front of them.

With that said City Manager Jim Puffalt has, without what I can see any direction from Council, prepared his own response. He is allowed to do so as an employee and I would argue it is contingent upon him to do so but the problem is his report in my opinion is weighted far too negatively supporting one side.

It could be said, given his response, when the report is presented he has entered the debate. Something as a member of Administration he is not suppose to be doing. For many I believe there is going to be comparisons to his predecessor Matt Noble who was infamous for doing so especially in his Council battles with former Councillor Don Mitchell. 

This in my opinion is something regular Council watchers need to key in on. This will be a crucial part of the debate. It will set the tone for some while between Puffalt and his bosses. 

The other major thing Puffalt points out is the motion will delay the Budget, which is true. But it also doesn’t delay it into any sort of dangerous area time-wise.  

Through one of the many regular Council watchers who subscribe to this column the response I got was the only people threatened are those who's pet projects might now be better scrutinized. Is it true? I don’t know but it makes for a great Council conspiracy if I ever saw one. 

Priority Based Budgeting is suppose to be about working within a set amount of money or a capped budget on not just the capital but the operational side as well.

On the operations side services are suppose to be given weight and then funding assigned or prioritized based upon that weight. Services which are higher weighted may receive more funding than requested while lower weighted services may receive less or no funding at all. 

In a year of tough economic times and many taxpayers are making tough personal choices there is support for the report. 

In many ways it gives Council the opportunity to take a more sober second look at how money is being spent at a time many taxpayers are looking for relief on. 

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