RHINO'S RAMBLINGS: Budget Started in Sunshine, Ends in Shadows


Robert Thomas

Well after weeks of work and having to almost face the potential of going back to square one, the 2018-2019 City of Moose Jaw operating and capital budgets are in the bag, and whether or not they stay there likely depends on what comes out of the Province's budget on April 10th.

After what was a very tough budget, of trying to replace infrastructure in a time of provincial cuts, a lot of which is deteriorated to the point you can no longer repair it, Council finally struck a deal which reduced the water rate hike from 15 to nine percent but saw property taxes go up another 1.9 percent to make up for the shortfall. And no, with any property tax increase or utility rate increase, not many are going to be happy.

It did not take long for the complaints to come in and people aren't happy with the final results at all.  I heard them as early as sitting down for coffee 20 minutes after leaving City Hall to collect my thoughts after another 4 hour affair of Council and Executive Committee combined.

"So what do you think about those tax increases?" I was asked by someone who doesn't particularly like me, but before I had a chance to answer all I heard was "what a bunch of bullshit wasn't it? And to do it in a secret meeting and only Luhning to call out the BS. And you even had that (explicative removed) Eby down there giving it to them. Good for her those guys deserve it right back up to their secret meeting stuff."

Others were not so kind but most keyed in on the March 8th budget meeting and Councillor Dawn Luhning saying it was not conducive to transparency and accountability to hold that meeting in-camera. Despite all other meetings of the Budget Committee being open to the public, Luhning felt the final one should not have been held behind closed doors.

You could tell from Councillor Don Mitchell's response that he did not agree with Councillor Luhning and made it abundantly clear that her opinion was wrong and an in-camera meeting was most appropriate. Going in-camera for Coun Michell was necessary because the discussions dealt with personnel and potential job cuts to help get the water rate increase down to a more palatable level.

The City's employees don't need that stress, especially since the potential cuts discussed were highly hypothetical. And yes, nobody needs to be stressed out that your job was potentially on the chopping block.

In this past Monday's Regina Leader-Post ,both Councillors Brian Swanson and Chris Warren felt holding the meeting in-camera was appropriate because it dealt with personnel but votes were open to the public.

Now here is what I will tell you: under The Cities Act, holding the special meeting or portions of it in-camera was allowable since it did deal with personnel. Under the Act all votes though must be done in public. So it all sounds legitimate what happened here now doesn't it? But there is a problem. The problem is the media and general public were not alerted about the special meeting.

How could anyone physically witness the vote if they were unaware of it? Did the City wittingly or unwittingly break the spirit of the Act?

All that would be available publicly would be the minutes from the motions voted on and nothing more. Unless a recorded vote was taken you would not know who voted for or against a motion. A recorded vote is where they write down in the minutes how each member of council votes. It is only taken if requested. Most motions of council are simply a show of hands. Members of council cannot abstain. An abstention is immediately shown as a "no" vote.

For more than a few council watchers, its the optics that, in this scribes humble opinion, aren't the greatest. I also don't believe any member of the Budget Committee (Council) was aware of the oversight until after the meeting.

Now I will tell you I did ask what happened here and was told last Friday that it must have been an oversight within the City Clerk's office and the media should have been alerted.

Something went wrong. The question is what? And how is the City going to fix it so we don't witness a repeat?

Throughout the entire budget process, I will tell you, it was more or less open to the public. The City's Communication's Director, Craig Hemingway, has gone out of his way to make the public aware of the budget meetings and encouraging feedback in various ways from the public. Sadly, for the most part, the public has been a no show, but the City continues to work on it. Believe me, they want people's feedback but just do it respectfully.

Now back to the budget process, which was open, in my opinion, except for on two things: the March 8th special meeting and something which happened at the January 13th meeting that I also attended.

March 8th is obvious, as the meeting was unannounced; but what was it that was not transparent at the January 13th meeting?

For those wondering, it was a single sheet of paper which was distributed to members, for Budget Committee eyes only. On that sheet of paper were a list of cuts Administration had determined, which could be made without overly impeding the City's operations. The list was never made public to those - only MJ Independent was there - in the gallery.

Just from the conversations though ,I was able to ascertain the $30,000 grant to the Moose Jaw Municipal Airport was on that list.

Now this is just my opinion, and its only a hunch, but I think that what was on that single sheet of paper from the Jan. 13 meeting may well have been discussed at the March 8th special budget meeting. But as I said it is just a guess.

With that said, when it comes to the March 8th meeting behind closed doors; was it necessary to hold all discussions in-camera?

Couldn't some discussions, such as the discussions on how Budget Committee arrived at the nine percent instead of 15 percent water rate increase be held in public? Or why is the 6.41 percent tax increase OK? What was the discussion that lead to that amount? How did Council reach this equilibrium? What were the arguments, pro and con, when it came to this portion of the in-camera meeting? Is this discussion really about personnel and therefore suited for in-camera discussion or could it have been conducted publicly?

The questions keep piling up about what discussion was personnel related and in-camera and what wasn't? Or were the discussions so intertwined that there is no breaking them apart?

Now in defence of the entire budget process, I will tell you that, for most people, it would likely be best described as long and boring. But for journalists and council watchers it is pure gold.

The open nature of the meetings, administration telling the policy makers and the ones holding the purse strings the God honest truth about the true condition of the City should be a wake up call for us all.

Many of things we hear about the condition of our waterworks utility are heard on the street and are largely anecdotal but in the Engineering Department's presentation they gave empirical data on the true state of the utility. And it can all be summed up to two words: not good.

With that said though ,despite a record number of water-main breaks last year - 118 - the Engineering Department and Public Works managed to get a major amount of preventative maintenance done, with ZERO additional cost to the taxpayer. In theory it may well buy some additional time to get more core infrastructure replaced.

Great news but sadly lost in the shadows of how the budget finally got resolved.

moose jaw