'Managing' the City Budget

There has been a lot of chattering on the social media about our new, young Deputy Mayor and his ability to handle the Budget File of some $120,000,000. It really is not that complex of an issue – or should not be.

The ‘Budget’ target(s) (Operating and Capital) should be set by the Chair of the General Government committee, usually in consultation with the rest of council, but with the Chair’s leadership. That target, say a 1% increase in expenses without cuts to service for an example, is delivered to the Chief Administrative Officer for him to pass along to his City Managers. They prepare their budgets and give the resulting figures to the CAO. The CAO reviews them, and after any adjustments, gives the budget to the Chair. The budget, having met the guideline of 1% increase is then presented to council for approval. It is the CAO who must not be bamboozled by increased user fees, lower funding from the Province, changes in the assessment base, or levels of service – all the reasons the Managers will use to say they cannot meet budget guidelines.

It is a simple process then to review the results, as presented by the CAO, as the year progresses and make adjustments if there are events that exceed the contingency funds. The Budget Chief or Chair does not have to micro-manage the budget. It is the CAO who sees that the budget, which is the financial policy for that fiscal year, is implemented according to council policy.

Where it gets sticky is if the CAO cannot get his managers to present a 1% increase budget, and trust me, they would balk at 1%. If there must be cuts to levels of service, then the Budget Chief ought to consult his fellow councillors for advice. If the CAO cannot follow the policy, then he has no option but to tender his resignation. He may apply the same logic to his City Managers, whether they be in charge of the Fire Department or Public Works or any other Department. As long as the budget policy is reasonable, its goal can be met. Even if the Administration balks at the policy, it is not solely the budget manager who must enforce policy, but the whole of council, including the mayor.

Council sets policy, the staff finds procedures to accomplish that policy. Only if staff does not, will not or cannot follow policy should council ever interfere with the operations of the city. So Deputy Mayor elect, do not be cowed by some of the old dawgs on council. Set a reasonable budget target for this year (and next) and see what the Administration can do.

Okay, so this is North Bay, not Utopia. But go for it. We are all with you in trying to build a better City.

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