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Officials unable, unwilling to make the right choices

Take care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves. A somewhat shop-worn admonition to the virtue of thrift, but the sentiment is true nonetheless.

It’s especially applicable to politicians, who are ever keen to spend all of the pennies, pounds, dollars, drachmas … whatever they can get their hands on.

We’ve certainly been witness to that during the municipal budget process, especially at the region. Woolwich councillors, currently in the midst of budget deliberations, seem at times to be aware of the message, but equally intent on ignoring it.

Take, for instance, some of the budget tweaks made last week. They shaved a few dollars here and there, which is admirable, but seemed content to stop there rather than getting to the meat of the budget – salary cuts – and accelerating the pennies-to-pounds goal.

Likewise, they appear familiar with the concept of value for money, having decided that spending $2,000 in support of the wagon rides – which transport riders from the steam train stop in Elmira to the downtown core – didn’t represent a good return. Though expressing some hesitation about the township’s membership in the Waterloo Regional Economic Development Corporation, however, they still went ahead with the full-freight $50,000 this year despite zero return thus far. The township is on the hook for another $50,000 in 2018, winding up a four-year, $160,000 commitment made with little thought and even less evidence of its usefulness.

In the same vein, but worse still, the township has dropped more than a million dollars since 2009 on its own economic development efforts that have yielded little, if anything. Not even a valid measure of what the program has done. Yet there’s no talk of what happened to the pennies, let alone the pounds. Nor of accountability for the tax dollars spent.

It’s the same story that plays out for much of the budget process: some fiddling at the margins, but no review of overall spending. Even with talk of its infrastructure deficit and how there’s not enough money to deal with essentials, there’s no talk of prioritizing where the money goes. Tax relief is beyond the pale.

With the now well-documented decrease in our incomes and standards of living, governments too have to make do with less, scaling back to focus on the essentials.

In the end, staffing is going to be a key issue. Labour costs make up more than 50 per cent of the budget – significant savings will come only with cuts here. There’s no need to be draconian, but wage and hiring freezes as well as attrition are likely to be required to get spending back in line.

The argument is made that 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. Certainly the public can sometimes be unrealistic: we can’t have both more program spending and lower taxes.

More and more, however, we’re seeing higher costs – i.e. taxes – without any commensurate increases in the level or quality of service. At best, we’re paying more for more of the same.

At some point, local politicians will have hard decisions to make. In the long run, the system we’ve developed is untenable, but the crisis will come long before that. A series of hikes that have driven property taxes and fees to egregious levels leaves no room for hitting the beleaguered residents with still more taxes to make up the shortfall. It’s crunch time.

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