Budget meeting impressions

Lutz Becker has submitted some thoughts on the recent budget meeting which he has published in full in the latest issue of Mud Creek News, available [or sometimes not] at the Post Office. We  have edited it somewhat for length, keeping we hope the essence of his concerns.  An item from David Daniels on the issue of public input was also submitted and will follow tomorrow.

PERCEPTIONS DURING THE PUBLIC BUDGET MEETING, APRIL 12, 2010

Lutz E. Becker

The Town’s updated budget draft 2010-11 was presented to as few as 13 citizens plus some staff members and about 9 young adults from Katimavik.

Mr. David Daniels had forwarded to the Town 26 points/questions to be shown in advance under Comments on their web-site. The points/questions had failed for whatever reason to show up on the web-site.  CAO Brideau suggested answering them during the meeting after another citizen had asked two questions and got them partly answered. It should be positively noted that Mayor Stead allowed questions from the gallery this time, a significant change from last year’s proceedings during budget deliberations. Most answers from CAO Brideau were vague and/or not to the point.

I regard this draft typical for the Brideau Administration.  As always it is based on wish lists of his departmental directors, increasing the budget total and showing no clear reference to a list of priorities – set by the Council itself – and maybe different but measurable service levels. When Mayor Stead stated in his introductory comments that the proposed budget addressed 9 of the 20 objectives from the Corporate Strategic Plan, I had a problem …. I would have liked to have the 9 named clearly…

At the beginning of the discussions Mr. Porter, Director of Financial Services, hand-delivered to Councillors and to the gallery coloured copies showing a graph of the Town’s Debt Servicing Costs (Principle and Interest) projected over 10 years and up to the budget year 2019-20. This was supposed to simplify the understanding of the Town’s amortization of debts over time but it helped to confuse the reader even more. I was informed after the meeting that the chart was meant to show the yearly repayment on the principle and the yearly interest to be paid for the entire debts per year.  For the shown yearly interest payments of up to $104,141 there is no reference to be found on related total debt levels. Nowhere in the budget draft could I find the actual and total debt amount of the Town… I understand that the current total debts are around 5 million dollars. Some weeks ago Council allowed for additional debts of more than $400,000 for a low interest rate under the assumption that present debts with a higher rate would be replaced. I would like to be able to check on the replacement. Furthermore, I would like to know the debt level prior to the team Brideau/Stead took over the Town more than 10 years ago.

I regard it a bad-taste and sarcastic joke to see on the cover page of the budget draft the hyphenated slogan: “Moving to sustainability”. I do not see any sustainability especially reading on page 16 about the Town’s growing infrastructure deficit of approximately 20 million dollars.

Furthermore, the present situation at the Acadia University may have or may not have impact on the sustainability of Wolfville remaining a “Town”. The facts may come out in a report next month when Dr. Tim O’Neill – appointed by the government to review all universities in Nova Scotia – will present his findings. That employees had to take a pay cut is out in the public but that Acadia’s long term mortgage debt is 70 million dollars and that the university seems to have a problem to pay the interest at this point in time is not known by the public. …

Do the CAO Brideau and Mayor Stead not know about the current situation at Acadia  …?

To play the budget game as if “the world is round and beautiful and the horizon shows a golden (sustainable) colour is more than irresponsible to me. …

It is my understanding that the proposed budget 2010-11 is not facing given realities.

The Councillors became elated by the news that the court case on the school-costs issue was won. Kings County can still appeal and I was unable to find the huge additional costs in the new budget proposal in case the court case was or will be lost finally.

Councillors then became carried away about possible surpluses from last year … to be used for studies like a Business Development Study and a Transportation Study.  … I do not recall any discussions that the possible surplus could be used to lower the budget; that is to lower the tax rate or spending it on something else but studies. Especially Deputy Mayor Simpson’s comments made me leave the hearing at this point in time. Recently I have not heard any new ideas brought by him to the Council table. Expertly, he always paraphrases and agrees to other Councillors’ ideas and praises them then as very good and/or important ones. Recently I have regretted several times that I voted for him.

Another problem I see in the fact that Council is supposed to make a decision on the budget 2010-11 on Apr. 26, 2010 without having at least unaudited figures on balances at Mar. 31, 2010. This budget draft shows comparison figures from last year’s budget but those may vary drastically from the actual figures as of the end of the previous budget year. The actual figures may provide an entirely different perception in relation to the newly proposed ones. Furthermore, they would show itemized surpluses or negative results and give indications on the correctness of last year’s figures and/or having a job well or badly done. To show percentage increases and/or decreases between the planned figures of last year and the proposed ones for this year is not sufficient for the decision making and almost foolish. CAO Brideau stated that the actual figures as of Mar. 31, 2010 will be available on May 09. 2010. … I am certain that CAO Brideau and Dir. Porter have a good understanding on the qualification and quantification of those few open items. If there really were some actual figures available to Councillors, they were not available to the public. …

Looking at some of the proposed figures it is difficult to make a judgement and/or criticise their accuracy due to missing additional information.

One very questionable point is the employment of 32 permanent full time staff and nine permanent seasonal staff taking salaries and benefits of almost 28% out of the proposed 2010-11 budget total even with one staff member less. Compared to last year’s figures this is an increase of more than 5.5% while the CPI index as a base was below 1%. The lame remark of CAO Brideau to this was that the Town has to find a replacement for Dir. Porter and that there will be some time when the “old” and the “new” guy will have to be paid in parallel. I wonder how many staff managed, administered and governed this Town with about the same numbers of citizens and students about 10 years ago.

I found it very surprising that nobody complained about a proposed increase of the residential tax rate by 3 cents to 1.43 while the assessment values increased by 1.7% to $300,551,400. On the commercial side the proposed tax rate will increase by 8 cents to 3.57 while the assessment values go up 2.7%.

On page 13 of the draft the outstanding “commitments” for the new budget are documented. These are $38,000 for the Hospice (part of $114,553), $16,000 for the School Playground (part of $32,000), 15,000 for Acadia’s Raymond Field (part of $60,000) and $10,000 for the Historical Society (part of $50,000). These are donations which the Council committed to pay over several years. To make a point, the Council can make decisions like these for the current budget year only. Commitments for future years are not binding on the Town unless they are part of a multi-year contract. The ones as above may be regarded as moral “commitments” only. If money is really tight, the Town could skip these “commitments” … These will become legal commitments for another year – like Brideau’s 2010-11 salary increase in the Stead letter of 2007- as soon as the budget with these items included will pass the Council table.

I still have a problem with $125,000 in the reserve to be used on the Trojan Park. Maybe that amount can be decreased – as before – to an acceptable amount to free some money for much more important projects.

Beside the point that the Mayor’s and the Councillors’ Honoraria are supposed to go up by 2% (more than the CPI index) I have a problem that the Special Allowance for the Mayor to be increased by more than 15%.

Interestingly, the proposed amount for the item Communications was increased by 375% compared to last year’s budget. Maybe, this might mean something regarding the recent attitude of this Administration.

I question as well any or all reasons for the grant given to the Farmers Market in the amount of $3,000.

Finally and with a sharp pencil I would scratch out or decrease many of the positions under the headline Recreation and Cultural Services. Especially Recreation is not listed as one of the “core” or “mandated” services. Last November the Council classified Recreation as a “secondary” service at its retreat. …Why the Recreation Services Manager is supposed to earn an increase of 19.39% I cannot grasp. The Office Computer item of $12,393 I cannot understand either. I would scrap up to about $200,000 in total for most of the items on the pages 50 and 51 of the draft including a Soccer employee and a Tennis Instructor plus Tennis Lights and all the grants in the proposed total amount of $109,600.

As long as the Town has outstanding debts of around 5 million dollars or less and an uncertain future I would like to see the debts paid back as soon as possible and if Mayor Stead and the Councillors have to feel good about donating money and/or property for whatever cause, let them – being in power – use their own money or use their influence any way they like to inspire and motivate citizens to donate.
To donate tax payers’ money and feel good about it is not acceptable!

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One response to “Budget meeting impressions

  1. Another outstanding analysis! Well done Mr Becker.

    $5million in the hole… and still they blow any surplus on empty-headed nonsense. What else is there to say?

    I’m surprised there were as many as 13 citizens in attendance. Based upon my previous experience, the only outcome from attending is a sleepless night.

    Why on earth do we pay so much to be tortured by so many baffling bureaucrats and their pet politicians? I hear that coyotes will run away if you throw rocks at them…