Budget time: Can the city stick to its 10% promise or will the tax hit over the four year term rise to 14+%?

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.

January 8, 2014

The city will get its first peak at the budget for 2014 next week when a Budget Overview is given to the Community and Corporate Services Committee.

Burlington has revised its Standing Committee, renamed them and set up a schedule that allows for meetings during the day and in the evening when it is easier for the public to attend.  So far however, there don’t appear to be all that many evening sessions.

Citizens diligently reviewing the city budget. Do these public events ever result in any change or are they just a one way flow of information: From them to you.

The public will get a chance to get an up close and personal look at the budget document on Wednesday, January 29th when there will be a Community Meeting and Workshop on the budget at the Shoreline Room at the Burlington Art Centre.  7:00 to 9:00pm – no open bar.

 These public meetings have always taken place “downtown” partly because there wasn’t a decent location north of the QEW.  With the opening of the Alton Campus there is no excuse for not holding a second meeting in that part of the city.  Attendance will be small but once people in the northern part of the city are told, in a meaningful way that they matter – the public will turn out.  And the city will get a point of view they don’t get south of the QEW.

Senior staff facilitate the budget discussions – dies what they hear get any further than the flip chart?  And will the city hold public meetings on the Alton Campus?

Burlington’s budget is broken into two parts: Capital expenses, things like road work, underpass construction (We won’t see any grade separation work done this year – Mainway and Burloak won’t be done this time around) and the maintaining of the infrastructure we have.

The city administration expects to get the Capital Budget & Forecast review covered and approved in a single session that will take place Tuesday February 11th in Council Chambers starting at 9:30 am.  It will then go to Council for a formal vote.

Part two of the city budget – they call it the Current Budget – will be open for delegations on Thursday February 13th before the  Community & Corporate Services Committee in the Council Chambers at 9:30 am. 

Why this session is not being held during an evening session is very difficult to understand.  If the city wants to encourage delegations – truth be told they don’t want to have to listen to a couple of dozen people taking their ten minutes at the podium and giving their opinions.  This is how democracy works in Burlington – it is a recent change and not a healthy one.  In 1947 Winston Churchill remarked in the British House of Commons that:  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  We paid a very high price for the democracy we have – let us not piss it away.

Council expects to approve the 2014 Capital Budget & Forecast in the Council Chamber during an evening session on February 18th, when delegations can take place.  But, because this is a Council meeting, delegations are limited to five minutes and, as the chairs of the Standing Committees always point out – the “heavy  lifting” gets done at the Standing Committee level.

The Current budget, which will be quite controversial this time out will get debated in Council chambers by the Budget & Corporate Services Committee on the following dates: Thursday, February 20, Tuesday, March 4 and Thursday, March 6 (if required).  All of these meetings are at city hall starting at 9:30 am.

Budget will go to Council for approval on March 17.  Tax bills in the mail a few days later.After all that “heavy lifting” at the Standing Committees the budget will go to Council for approval on March 17th.  That event will be an evening meeting.

During January Council members will have copies of the budget which they will review and advise the Clerks office of any items in the budget they wish to discuss in-depth.  Each Council member fills in a form, the forms get put into a single pile and the Clerk’s office organizes everything so that Council can see which councillors want to debate which budget item.

In the past the city has held what they called a “budget bazaar” that had senior city staff gathering in a room, with each department at a different table so that Council members could go from table to table and discuss in detail a budget concern.

There are significant Current Budget concerns that will have to be addressed in the coming months.  Based on the remarks made by the city manager in December it became evident that the city would not succeed in sticking to the promise to hold increase at not more than 10% during the term of office.  Few Council members spoke of 10% as a target – except for the Mayor and he may have to live with that prediction.

Fielding, in his comments suggested that it was more likely to come in at 14%+ over the ten years.  That is something Council will decide as it moves forward.  The budget recommendations come from the desk of the city manager ever since he took that file from General Manager Kim Phillips.

Jeff Fielding did make it clear as well that 2014 is a transition year for the way the city develops its budget.  He has brought in an impressive bunch of financial management tools that include Results Based Accountability, Business Process Management and Service Based Budgeting.  These tools will result in a move away from the “silo” approach the city has worked with ; one that has each department working its territory when many of the services delivered involve several departments.An impressive bunch of financial management tools that include Results Based Accountability, Business Process Management and Service Based Budgeting

So – for 2014 the question is – will Council manage to stick with the 10% and trample a couple of planned changes – culture could be the place where the pinch gets felt; they want to add an additional full-time employee.  What gets thrown under the bus?  Has transit taken all the pounding it can handle?

Perhaps there is an opportunity to suck out a bigger dividend from Burlington Hydro.  The ice storm may have eaten up any spare cash they happened to have in the kitty.

There is of course a bunch of “reserve” funds – piggy banks with money set aside for a rainy day.  And an election year is seen as a rainy day.

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