Rhino's Ramblings - Budget Fog At City Hall

rhino budget fog.jpg

Robert Thomas - Opinion/Commentary

Now that I have finally shaken the effects of a six week battle with the flu I got asked if I was going to provide some analysis of Budget 2019. So in that spirit I thought I would write something about the overall process. 

One of the things you will notice about this year's budget versus last year's budget is not just a move towards priority based budgeting but much of the discussion really was done behind closed doors. 

I am sorry to say in my opinion much of the discussion which would have given residents a better idea not only where, but the why of where the City is headed was discussed in-camera. 

In his comments more than once Councillor Brian Swanson as well as Mayor Frasier Tolmie have mentioned things were hashed out at Strategic Planning Sessions. 

Although it is completely legitimate and legal for Council to do these discussions behind closed doors the real problem is in Budget Committee there are things said which could very well lead a person to believe decisions on Civic Budget 2019 were not just discussed but made behind closed doors.

Now can I prove it? Sorry I cannot but there are some interesting tidbits I personally think should have been decided publicly. 

For instance take a look at the just under four percent – presumably permissible -  property tax increase Budget Committee is striving for. Now where did that figure come from?

During Budget Committee discussions Councillor  Swanson let that one out of the bag when he divulged apparently how that figure was arrived at. 

Councillor Swanson stated it was not really a vote but a survey of those who attended a Strategic Planning Session held at the Moose Jaw Public Library and how they went around the table and unidentified members of Council said they could live with a four percent increase. 

To be clear Councillor Swanson did not call it a decision -  in fact he pointed out it wasn’t – but still it is a major indicator that much of Civic Budget 2019's underlying tone was in fact discussed at length behind closed doors.

Now is this permissible? Certainly it is.

But is it transparent? That is in the eyes of the beholder. In my own personal opinion – when you look at such things as how decisions made in Regina regarding their budget – it is very much opaque and lacks in transparency in comparison.

Think about it for a few moments and think how do some Council members justify the just under four percent tax increase they are diligently striving for? How did they derive this amount? What measuring post did they look at when they made the decision? Where did they derive it all from? Is it a simple arbitrary number or did they have some outside or Administration input to settle on the amount? And finally how can they justify it given the admittedly weak local economy. 

One of the big bell weather indicators we do have on Civic Budget 2019 is none other than Councillor Heather Eby and some of the things she has said in Budget Committee. 

What Councillor Eby has said on at least two separate occasions is the fact as a new Council member she was not privy to the discussions putting the budget together. 

Now were the majority of those discussions done in public? No they were not. 

Many were conducted – by what is being mentioned in Budget Committee – in Strategic Planning Sessions or let’s face it behind closed doors. And if you take a close look at the Procedural Bylaw a good read will tell you that Strategic Planning Sessions are conducted with only Council and Administration present, no agenda is ever published, no minutes are kept and really what was discussed is forever seemingly 100 percent private. 

For a Council, where a majority just over two years ago ran on a transparency platform, is this not a little bit might I say ironic? 

Remember voters were promised open and transparent decision making. But take a look at how the budget was finalized last year in a unannounced in-camera meeting ostensibly because it dealt with personnel issues. But it also dealt with, in private, how the trade off was made to drop water rates from the proposed 15 percent increase and increase taxes. 

Then this year hints are given Council and Administration used in-camera  Strategic Planning Sessions to discuss if not informally decide in at least a small many of the issues involving the shift to Priority Based Budgeting. Now is the open transparent policy formulation voters were promised on October 2016?  

For more of an indicator of things being done out of the public eye take a look at the budget schedule in 2019. When first announced at Council the entire sitting of Budget Committee was suppose to have wrapped up in December almost a month ago. When I first read this my first thoughts were how is this even possible?

How did Administration and Council ever succeed at hammering out so tight of a schedule was truly my initial thought. Especially when this was suppose to be year one of a major change in how the City budget was derived. I personally thought the move towards Priority Based Budgeting -  living within defined spending limits – would actually mean longer discussions and not a mere 17 hours originally set aside for Budget Committee deliberations. 

With that said I am going to admit the Budget itself is getting into some very serious time constraints especially in the area of capital projects and getting tenders out. 

People need to remember last year and Phase Two of cast iron water main replacement or what can be summed up in two words – High Street. 

No matter where people's opinions are on who is at fault -  if anybody is – in what happened in Phase Two it is undeniable the tender was not issued until what the industry would call late. And as such the entire Phase Two project started later than what many in the industry would prefer. 

I remember speaking to a construction contractor who told me in mid-February 2018 the City needed to hurry up and get the tender our quickly because people in the industry needed to line up work for equipment now. Holding on and waiting longer might mean no work in the end for contractors.

It is one thing City Manager Jim Puffalt and Councillor Swanson actually agreed on. The need to get the tenders out early as in right now. But where the Budget is at present, with a report expected into re-prioiritizing some capital spending on January 21st it’s obvious tenders are not be ready to issue until mid-February at the earliest. 

Moving the Budget up into late October to get it done earlier, to allow the City to catch the all important contractor window of January and early February, looks to be on the rocks and let’s face it sinking.

Having more firms bid on our tenders and the seemingly  guaranteed lower bids of increased competition should bring in let’s face iit could well be lost. Now will it cost the City or taxpayers more because of the budget log jam? Well that is something yet to be determined.

As one writer to MJ Independent wrote there are some really major problems with how long the City is taking in finalizing it’s budget.

Now am I knocking Council for requesting additional reports before making all important decisions? No I am not because really what they are asking for are honest professional opinions on what the consequences are of approving some expenditures. It’s a cautious but wise approach but it also has consequences on the budget process time line.

Another major issue which garnered a lot of attention on mjindependent.com – and more written concerns -  was Council's move to approve not only their raise but also reassess their rate of pay.

I cannot tell you who reminded me of something I forgot about but when Budget Committee approved looking at their own remuneration they sort of insulted a few employees. There was also suppose to be an exploration of  a new job evaluation/classification completed for CUPE employees but last year's budget shut it down due to costs. 

In a letter of understanding signed July 6th, 2017 the City agreed to a consultation to explore the possibility of amending or replacing the present employee evaluation/classification plan within 12 months of signing the collective agreement with CUPE. 

I took a look back at publicly available documentation -  easily accessible on the City's website – and yes ironically Council did in fact turn down spending $50,000 for a new job evaluation plan at their February 26, 2018 meeting. 

I called it ironic my sources called it worse. 

With that said will the budget be finalized soon? My own thoughts are unless there is more meetings scheduled and closer together I personally could see it going until mid February or later for final Council approval. That 17 hours originally scheduled has morphed into 17 weeks. 

moose jaw