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Lowered expectations will fuel cuts

Woolwich councillors made the first of a series of hard, but necessary decisions as they cobble together a budget for 2010. In turning down requests for large funding increases to Woolwich Community Services and the Woolwich Counselling Centre, they’ve set the stage for the cuts that will have to come, not just next year but for the foreseeable future.

That’s not to say the organizations don’t deserve support. Ideally, there would be more money to go around.

Representatives from both groups made valid arguments in favour of more money. There is certainly a case to be made that Woolwich should find room in its budget. All too often, however, governments at all levels hear such reasoned arguments and, unable to say no, simply go along with it, neglecting the increased burden on taxpayers.

WCS will still get an increase of four per cent. For the counselling centre, the initial decision – council can review the grant during formal budget deliberations – the $5,000 offered up returns the organization to the funding level it received before moving to a new building. In doubling that figure over the past two years, councillors were clear that was a temporary arrangement, so it should be no surprise they weren’t enthusiastic about bumping the contribution to $15,000.

For the overall budget, real cuts will have to come. Even the current target of a four-per-cent tax hike will require some juggling, and that rate is far above inflation and excessive given the state of the economy. But even as the economy recovers, reduced tax levels must be the goal: we’ve been paying more and more and receiving less in return.

Studies have consistently reinforced that point: Canadians have been working harder than ever, and have little to show for it. Real wages have been stagnating or dropping for much of the past two decades, but taxes have been going up steadily.

For tax-weary Canadians, that’s the real kicker. Simply put, we’re not seeing the benefits of having more money siphoned from our wallets.

Coun. Mark Bauman’s suggestion that WCS look at reducing some services to ease demand on staff and volunteers is something the municipality can take to heart. In going over the budget, a line-by-line scan will certainly reveal many items and services that provide little if any direct benefit to residents. In each case, those items should be scaled back or eliminated.

In many ways we’re the victims of our own expectations and complacency. We want more from our governments, but resent paying for it. We want accountability, but fail to ensure that officials keep a tight rein on spending. We can’t suck and blow. If we demand that cuts be made, but that they be made away from frontline services, we can gradually adjust to the new reality, expectations adjusted accordingly.

Those expectations are key, as politicians often argue the public has come to expect the level of service now offered, plus, of course, whatever new addition is contemplated, which will become next year’s status quo.

Governments of all stripes have been guilty of unnecessary bloating, taking on more and more functions without thought for the long-term implications. There is also a tendency to forego reviews of programs and spending to see if each item is still needed – once instituted, they become entrenched and part of each year’s baseline.

With those cuts would come the ability to reverse years of untenable property tax increases, gradually returning them to more manageable levels.

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