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Little long-term thinking as part of budget process

Having gone through a budget process largely bereft of an actual review of finances, let alone a focus on the community good, Woolwich council this week passed a budget that sees spending and taxes grow well beyond inflation.

In short, there’s no tax relief in sight for Woolwich residents despite an economy that continues to stagnate.

Instead of zero-based budgeting and line-by-line review of an ever-bloating list of expenditures, taxpayers will see operating expenses continue to rise. There appears to be no real effort to cut operations in order to free up some money for the growing infrastructure deficit, the tens of millions of dollars that will be needed to replace aging roads, bridges, sewers and the like. What has been on the table in recent years, however, is an additional tax levy to fund just those kinds of projects. For 2017, that represents a 1.5 per cent tax increase to help future construction projects.

A special levy makes sense under the circumstances: we have to start saving now to pay for some very expensive projects in the future. And with federal and provincial assistance less likely – both senior governments face massive deficits of their own – costs will fall on the local tax base. But beyond the special levy, municipal governments will have to cut back on the operating side – programs and soft services – in order to offset the sting of infrastructure renewal.

There’s no room for delay when it comes to failing bridges and watermains. If residents are not going to face even more exorbitant tax increases than have been the norm recently, then the dollars will have to be reallocated rather than simply going to the well for more, the usual fallback plan for all governments.

But rational approaches are seldom embraced by politicians who would rather promise more, spend more than to oversee reductions: ribbon-cuttings trump budget cuts every time among that group.

Cutting is not as easy as it sounds, of course. Just look at the trials and tribulations of populists in the mold of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who discovered all the gravy he campaigned on amounted to spoonfuls, not train loads. Faced with real cuts to real services, he came up against a steady stream of opposition – there are supporters for every expenditure, no matter how few people are served or how removed from the government’s mandate.

In Woolwich, there are expenditures – some of the substantial – that provide few if any direct benefits to the public, but for the most part cuts would mean some service reductions to some residents. Leaders determined to set priorities would need to balance expectations with reasonable levels of taxation, essentially selling the merits of more prudent spending. That’s more work, however, than taking the easy road: spending more, and taxing everyone as a matter of course.

The deliberations leading up to a new Woolwich budget offered little in the way of fiscal responsibility. In passing the budget this week, councillors offered little in the way of encouragement that future processes will lead to improvements.

They’re not alone, of course, as every more-senior government has been even more profligate, wasting billions and doing little to protect the long-term interests of their respective citizenry.

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