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Real, proper cuts still needed in Woolwich budget

Headed in the right direction, Woolwich councillors still have much to learn.

That was in evidence this week as they let themselves be bamboozled by staff who turned a request to cut spending by two per cent into a combination of meaningless reductions, deferrals and hope for higher revenues.

It was much the same with the previous council’s first budget, where expected spending cuts morphed into higher fees and taxes. Those councillors went along with the sham, too, essentially endorsing entrenched bureaucracy and lack of accountability at the expense of actually serving the public.

At least some of this new group continues to question staff’s tactics, seeing through the disingenuous and conveniently vague responses.

Moreover, this week’s finagling should serve as an eye-opening experience about both the long history of weak justifications for spending choices and the fact that the go-to move is to recommend cuts that hurt the public, not the ever-bloating bureaucracy.

Ideally, the tactical loss will stiffen the resolve of the responsible councillors to press for further cuts. Spelled out clearly: management positions over the side of the boat. Not cuts to frontline services. Not reductions in infrastructure work.

Woolwich Township is a small organization. If the senior management can’t easily identify the unneeded, unwanted and unworthy, council has a pretty good idea where to start with changes.

In that light, Mayor Sandy Shantz’s continued push for delays to actual changes in the public good and calls to hire consultants for the debunked service-level review and organizational assessment, also floated by Coun. Mark Bauman, were disconcerting.

No, decisions can’t be made willy-nilly, but the township’s business just isn’t that complicated. Certainly not as complicated as the budget process tries to make it, both for councillors and the public. The convoluted process is intentional, with the goal of forcing councillors to simply trust that what staff has prepared is both suitable and efficient. It seems those new to the scene weren’t all the way hoodwinked, though Tuesday night’s vote to approve the 2015 budget seemed to be born of a desire to be done with the onerous task. Chalk one up for the bureaucracy’s war of attrition.

Councillors Patrick Merlihan and Larry Shantz were the most vocal throughout the process, questioning much and at times refusing to accept the non-answers and partial explanations that are the hallmark of all budgets prepared by bureaucrats. It’s a tried-and-true formula learned by every high school student with a report to write: if you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your … droppings from the rear of beef cattle.

Still, both capitulated too early. That said, they and councillors Scott Hahn and Murray Martin seem prepared to play the long game, perhaps realizing that it’s more important to win the war rather than each and every battle.

Fighting on the side of what’s right – i.e. the public interest and the long-term health of the township – they now know what they’re up against and where changes have to be made in order to make local government more responsive to those who really matter.

The situation in Woolwich is a microcosm of what’s happening with every government everywhere. Those inside the bubble conflate their own interests with those of the citizens they purportedly serve. Most of us know that’s a sorry piece of fiction. With this week’s escapades, you can add a few councillors to those in the know.

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