March 18, 2015

Let’s not be too efficient in setting Town budget

As published in The Erin Advocate

There are lots of good things happening in the budget process upon which Erin town councillors have embarked, but there are some areas where caution and a bit more time are required.

Council members are getting along with staff and each other. Mayor Al Alls is working cooperatively with CAO Kathryn Ironmonger to make sure council business flows smoothly. There’s a positive atmosphere at the Town office, which is refreshing news for all concerned.

Staff have impressed council by presenting a pre-trimmed budget, including only the top priority projects that can be accomplished with a moderate tax increase. Instead of chopping away through five or six grueling budget meetings, the plan is to wrap this thing up in two sittings – a five-hour one last week and the second March 24 at 10 am.

Council has to decide what to add back into the budget, how much to borrow, how much to pull from reserves and ultimately how much to tax. The choices are important, but if they agree with the priorities in the plan set before them, relatively simple.

In considering new debt of $1 million, council was wise to request a report on debt ratios and servicing costs. They’re also thinking of pulling a million and a quarter from reserves, so they need to be confident that such a move will not create problems in the future.

In its key role of setting policies and priorities, council needs to ensure that debates over difficult choices happen at public meetings and that the public has adequate opportunity to understand and comment. Here are some suggestions to improve the current budget process:

Have a public meeting where people can comment on the operating budget, just as they appreciated doing on the capital budget. At the very least, don’t just present a slide show to explain the budget, then approve it the same day. Give them a couple of weeks to digest it and possibly appeal for changes.

Don’t schedule all two of the budget reviews and the final approval for daytime meetings. The most important issues should get some exposure at evening meetings.

Schedule budget meetings so that each department head can appear before full council to state their priorities and answer questions. Fire Chief Dan Callaghan and Interim Water Superintendent Joe Babin had other obligations and could not attend the meeting where their budgets were discussed. What if councillors were considering a change to one of those budgets and needed to know the implications?

With only two budget meetings, players are left out. Councillor Matt Sammut, who ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility, was away for the first meeting and Councillor John Brennan, the voice of experience from recent councils, will be away for the second. Having three or four shorter meetings could lessen this impact and allow time for comprehension and possible amendments.

Finally, council and staff should be careful with the use of “working groups”. These are private meetings of senior staff with the mayor and one other councillor. (Having three council members at a non-public meeting would violate the Municipal Act.)

Essentially, we have two out of five politicians present at what would normally be a staff meeting. This is not necessarily a problem. Discussing strategy on Town issues is beneficial, but there should never be even the appearance that final decisions are being made behind closed doors, or that staff being given clear direction by other than the full council.

These meetings have been used to discuss the fill bylaw and for preliminary cutting of departmental budgets and community grants.

Last week, Councillor Jeff Duncan objected when full council was asked to endorse the pared-down list of community grants without ever seeing it. The problem was quickly resolved, but it illustrates the need for traditional separation of duties: staff make recommendations and council gets enough information to make final decisions.

Perhaps working groups should be treated more like subcommittees, with clear terms of reference and a report with recommendations or options that full council could debate.