The Budget Process

Here is a piece by David Daniels on the Budget Process which has appeared in the latest issue of the Grapevine (Mar. 26- Ap.8). While it speaks to the decisions soon to be made by Council in Wolfville, Daniels could be talking about any municipality in Nova Scotia or in the country as a whole. Our one comment about it is, that the issue of waste, i.e. administrative and other extravagence- is not mentioned. Cuts do not always have to come from Programs, Services, or even positions or salaries.

REPRESENTATION AND THE TOWN BUDGET

What’s a council to do?  Too little money and so many worthy and/or necessary ways to spend it!

If a choice is necessary, should elected representatives do what they think is best for the community or should they follow the wishes of the electors who elected them.   And how do you know what is “best” or figure out the “wishes” of the electors”?

Some of these questions may seem more appropriately discussed in a political science class at Acadia than on the streets of Wolfville.  But in fact, they have some very real relevance for the decisions which Town Council must make fairly soon.

It’s budget time again, and the Council will have to decide how much of taxpayers’ money should be spent and what the money should be spent for.  Some expenditures are statutorily or contractually required, for example, for the RCMP and payments on the town debt.   Others can’t be put off, like filling potholes.   But many other budget items are “discretionary”.  Should salaries be frozen?  Should money go to support further renovation of the school playground, support summer theatre, Deep Roots, WAAG, the VON,  or a new hospice, the first in the Province?  The list is long and money is short.

At a February Council meeting dealing with the upcoming budget, staff was instructed by Council to prepare a draft budget in which the Town would spend no more money this year than last, except for an increase in revenue due to new construction.  (Councilor Zimmerman was absent, and I recall the Mayor was as well.)  Or to put it in pocketbook terms: the proposed budget should not call for an increase in your tax bill this year.

This request to staff, to hold the line on taxes, was made at least in part because some on Council were elected based upon their commitment to be fiscally conservative.   More than once during Council meetings I have heard more than one Councilor say that while campaigning he (there are no shes) heard residents express a concern about the high taxes in the Town.  At last year’s budget meetings the view was expressed that the Council had let spending get out of hand.

But what if holding spending at or near last year’s level is not in the “best interests” of the Town.   Refusing to fully fund certain items may be good for residents’ pocketbooks now, but what about in the long term?  If only the residents knew better, they would want us to fund X, Y and Z, even if that means higher taxes now.

If taxpayers have “spoken,” either by voting or literally speaking to candidates as they canvassed door to door, and their message was “hold down spending”, is it right for Council to ignore their voices?  Who, after all knows what is best for the town, if not its citizens?

Will the Council strive to hold down spending?  Some Councilors or the Mayor may feel that controlling spending is not what the community wants or “needs”.  In that case, it is incumbent upon them to explain either why their take on community sentiment is more accurate or, make clear why, despite the views expressed by residents, they know better about the needs of the community.

Wolfville is not a metropolis.  Efforts should be made to fully inform the residents about the budget.  The format should be clear and contain all vital information.  It should be distributed widely.  Having copies of the proposed budget available at Town Hall or on the website is not enough.  Multiple copies should be made available in the library.  Perhaps at the post office and other places where residents congregate.

Most importantly, citizens have a right to know why certain funding decisions are being made.  If in fact taxes are to be raised, then reasons for the increase should be forthcoming.  If certain projects are funded and others are not, then the criteria by which decisions were made should be stated up front.

Finally, residents have the right (and if they are to complain later, the obligation) to speak out about spending decisions during the budget process.  According to the Town’s website, the Town staff will present the 2009-2010 draft budget to Council for their consideration at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 31st.  The date of Council’s presentation to the community has not yet been scheduled.

David A. Daniels
March 19, 2009

The decision to hold the line on spending was laudable. Now, we can at least  hope that every expense beyond the frozen budget will have to vigorously defended. There is a Budget Meeting on Mar. 31.

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One response to “The Budget Process

  1. It’s dead simple.

    The budget should require an efficiency dividend — say 2% savings each year for the next 10 years to bring the budget down to something sensible.

    There are a few basic things a Council should look after — the stuff that almost everyone uses: water, sewage, roads, foot paths, garbage, and a few parks. All these things need to be done efficiently — not like they have been done up in the past. Garbage collection is incredibly inefficient compared to back-woods places like Australia!

    There are things Council should not be doing — like financing various lost-cause pseudo-businesses and hardly-thinking special-interest groups. Far too much of that nonsense has gone on in the past. Get rid of some of the nutty rules and regulations and make policing a bit more realistic.

    There is plenty of scope for amalgamating some things and privatizing other stuff.

    Staffing levels are more like what one would expect for a Town of 50,000. So many directors…. so little tax revenue. What a joke!