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Letter: City budget discussions a social gathering disguised as a meeting

'City taxpayers are now supporting 423 employees at an average cost of over $111,000 and that’s not including those in the water department at $100,000 average or the ABC’s at who knows what levels. We’ve got 7 people in Human Resources costing over $180,000 each'
money inflation

Editor's note: Mr. Rennick submits this opinion as an open letter to the mayor and council.


To the editor:

I attended all of the operating budget meetings held recently and unfortunately, my experience was much the same as in previous years. It was a little different this time because the various committee chairs appeared to be presenting the budgets as their own personal programs rather than elected officials representing taxpayers.

There is necessarily an adversarial relationship that should exist between staff and council members but what I witnessed during these budget discussions was a social gathering disguised as a meeting.

Council and committee members are appointed to oversee that the decisions of the various city department managers meet the needs and priorities of the community. Staff are not your fellow employees. The reports that staff present to council are not always accurate and are quite often inaccurate and misleading. Your job is to question staff reports not sponsor them.

Day one began with the committee chair focusing particular attention on the fact that 50% of the budget increase was due to increases in the service partners' budgets. The reasons for pointing this out seem obvious if you are trying to divert responsibility for the increase in taxes but cloak the fact that the other 50% was due to city departments. The budget report presented by staff makes this misdirection obvious by listing the various city departments' percentage increases individually and then showing the percentage increase for the service partner group as a single percentage.

During the meetings, there were no meaningful discussions about staffing levels or the value to taxpayers of various current city positions or departments.

There was an extended discussion about the upcoming centennial celebrations and their cost. Since these costs are being funded out of reserves, they do not affect the budget or the tax levy and could easily be discussed at another time.

Fleet department transfers to reserves for this year have increased by almost 9% which brings the additional dollars extracted from taxpayers over the past 7 years to over $9 million. The new fleet life cycle costing model was put in place in 2018 to provide reserves for future equipment purchases. This is in direct opposition to one of the basic tenets of municipal financing which is that existing taxpayers pay for the services that they are receiving not for services that future taxpayers will enjoy.

Existing taxpayers have a responsibility to maintain assets such as roads, bridges and equipment, ensuring they remain in good condition to prevent imposing undue financial strain on future generations for their upkeep. However, it is not their responsibility to bear the cost of amenities that future taxpayers will benefit from without charge or at a discounted rate.

Furthermore, because of the needless budget presentation practice of calculating fleet department costs and distributing them as internal charges, cost increases in this department tend to go unnoticed. The increase in the Fleet department budget over the last seven years has been 78% or over 11% per year. The fleet life cycle costing method should be discontinued as well as the distribution of its costs as internal charges.

Last year’s budget was described as a placeholder budget and the council was looking forward to the operational review. I have no idea what a placeholder budget is or how it benefits taxpayers.  but during this year’s budget deliberations, we were told that the operational review is not intended to improve operations but is simply a benchmarking exercise. What benchmarking means when the comparisons being made are strictly incestuous, is that taxpayers can rest assured that they are not being gouged as badly as taxpayers in other municipalities.

Last year’s levy was lowered by a $1.9 million transfer from reserves with a direct promise that it was for last year alone. Well, that promise has come true in a way because this year we are using a $2.5 million transfer to lower the levy. However, I doubt that this was what taxpayers took from last year's promise.

Reserves act as a pacifier to soothe the electorate by hiding the effect of cost increases while in reality, they are hiding spending increases that are unsustainable. And this illustrates the heinous effect of using reserves for purposes not intended. This means that after two years of this new improved council future taxpayers are going to pick up the tab for its failure to address the root of the problem which is spending beyond our means and simply pushing the pain down the road.

Meanwhile, city taxpayers are now supporting 423 employees at an average cost of over $111,000 and that’s not including those in the water department at $100,000 average or the ABC’s at who knows what levels. We’ve got 7 people in Human Resources costing over $180,000 each. Is there anyone who can put forward a rational argument defending the value of that expenditure for the type of service we require? With the wage contracts coming up this year or next and the obvious aversion that exists within the city to draw a line in the sand on compensation costs, taxpayers currently have little hope.

The depressing part of this whole thing is the rhetoric emanating from elected officials suggesting that they have everything under control, nothing to see here, when in fact they continue to cater to advice from staff, have nothing under control whatsoever and the reality is the whole operation is collapsing under its own weight and burying taxpayers.

Don Rennick

North Bay