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A case of too little, too late in fiddling around the edges

While we applaud efforts to question spending choices and save money, it’s more than a little ironic that Woolwich council dedicated more time discussing the minutia of a $15,000 contract with the Humane Society than it did on spending millions in the township’s 2014 budget.

Mayor Todd Cowan, who’s showed himself willing to spend tax money with abandon, was somewhat inexplicably worked up over the new agreement. While the deal certainly brings significant increases as a percentage of past rates for service, the fact that the fee structure hasn’t changed since 1966 makes the changes much more reasonable.

Where was this fervour when the township was making questionable hiring decisions, the kind that added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget each and every year? As with its predecessors, this council has offered few challenges to staff’s assertions more bodies are needed to bloat the payroll, despite the addition of jobs providing no benefit to taxpayers footing the bill. Nor has there been much discussion about how it is the township is paying so generously for jobs that typically pay much less in the private sector.

Looking at the numbers, councillors should have been pushing for a review of all pay levels, recognizing that the payroll makes up half of all expenditures and increases have outstripped inflation, padding an already overly-generous pay scale.

Instead such salary reviews and requests for line-by-line justifications have been conspicuously absent in budget deliberations.

As we’ve noted, bureaucracies have a tendency to expand – bureaucrats beget more of themselves – but it’s council’s job to push back against the tendency. We’re not seeing that in Woolwich, where growth in administrative staff has easily eclipsed the outside workers who actually deliver services to residents. Of course, there’s a need for office staff, but busywork should be kept to a minimum. Again, that’s where councillors are supposed to come into the equation.

We’ve long decried the lack of oversight in Woolwich council, which has been far too compliant with staff proposals. This crop of councillors have had their moments, but there is typically little debate. Fostering a more confrontational spirit is a good reason to expand the size of council, even beyond the one extra seat in play for the fall vote.

Our call for changes is not simply about the global austerity movement, though the township is not immune to the economic downturn. Rather, it’s about putting the focus on why local government exists in the first place: providing services to residents at a manageable cost. With spending outpacing inflation and the falling standard of living of many taxpayers, something has to give. Done slowly and gradually, there will be much less pain. And more money available for essential expenditures, such as dealing with aging infrastructure.

Instead, there’s a lot of busywork. The addition of extra staff members makes it easy to spread the workload rather than becoming more efficient. The generating of reports – classic bureaucratic time-wasting – helps fill out the schedule and attempts to justify more of the same.

We’ve seen this become more pervasive in the township in recent years. It all makes perfect sense inside the bureaucracy. But there’s little if any benefit to the taxpayers, who are footing the bill. It’s the job of council to curb the bloat and to ensure there’s value for money spent. That’s certainly not been the case so far. The public deserves better.

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