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Sunday, August 25, 2019

Stop tinkering and make real changes to poor spending habits

Some tinkering at the margins aside, there’s been very little talk of saving money, and even less about value for taxpayers and doing right by residents as Woolwich councillors went through four weeks of special budget meetings.

There was, however, some movement in that direction last week, with council putting off a final vote on the 2019 budget pending some adjustments. Not, of course, that there will be a wholesale review of how spending got out of hand in the last decade or so.

One useful suggestion involves leaving vacant the economic development job while the incumbent is on maternity leave, with a potential savings of some $115,000 – equivalent to a one per cent tax hike. For those councillors worried that the money would have to go back into the budget next year following the incumbent’s return, there was also a suggestion the dollars be earmarked for the operating contingency fund, the better to strip out some of the padding elsewhere in the budget.

If, as is likely, the one-year hiatus from the services reveals the function isn’t a good value proposition for the residents of Woolwich, then council will have some useful data to begin eliminating the position, an overdue review of the township’s unsupported and unjustified expansion in management staff size and costs

Moreover, the 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.

There were hints of the standard refrain that any changes to the budget – itself presented as if from Mount Sinai – would require cuts to frontline service; ideally, councillors intent on doing jobs pay no heed to that. There’s plenty of room to cut percentages out of the budget without any effect on actual services to the public and zero impact on infrastructure projects.

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.

Changes can’t be made willy-nilly, but the township’s business just isn’t that complicated. Certainly not as complicated at 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. Not everyone on council is hoodwinked, but there is perhaps too much Kool-Aid on the menu.

Fighting on the side of what’s right – i.e. the public interest and the long-term health of the township – mindful councillors 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.

Woolwich has certainly been suffering from bureaucratic bloat, particularly in the last decade, with most of the new positions adding no value to the residents of the township.

Directing staff to make cuts rather than simply going back to the tax well would set a good precedent, forcing them to look at needless spending. Likewise, Woolwich needs to reel in its increasing expenditures – up 92 per cent in the last decade – which have continued to climb as the township helped itself to the assessment growth and other financial windfalls, taking and not giving anything back to the residents who suffer from the many negatives of growth.

Easy cuts with no impact on residents will provide plenty of extra revenue that can applied to the township’s infrastructure deficit. Reduced spending on the operating side will allow the municipality to focus on the priorities, hard services essential to the community.

Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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