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Effective budgeting calls for council to see the big picture

Last week’s special budget meeting must have been disheartening to Woolwich councillors, especially if any of them was interested in actual talk of budgeting.

The meeting was even more disheartening to the residents of the township.

Called ostensibly to allow council to discuss “high-level” goals at the start of the 2020 budget process, the meeting failed even to give taxpayers an idea of what to expect next year, beyond the certainty that their payments will go up. Reading between the lines, homeowners can expect at least a two per cent inflationary increase, a 1.5 per cent infrastructure levy and perhaps a continuation of the 0.5 per cent greening levy introduced this year.

There were no high-level or overarching policy discussions, which I would define as councillors setting directional priorities by establishing where funding is most needed and moving to streamline or eliminate spending that provides little benefit to the public. But there’s no such taking of stock, no review of expenditures and no mapping of the way. Intentions aside, the township appears set for the same staff-driven agenda. Staff will recommend their priorities – not necessarily what’s good for the public – and council will make a few tweaks at the fringe.

What’s needed is some perspective on the current state of affairs, starting with a review of the recent history – say, the last 20 years – that’s brought the township where it is. Over the years, staff numbers have bloated, along with areas of spending, some of which have little or no value to the public. That’s never discussed, however. Or, if someone does raise the issue, it’s quickly shot down by those complicit.

After years of little growth, Woolwich first started seeing a growth spurt in the new millennium when servicing – water and sewage – was expanded in Elmira. Later, things started to boom in Breslau. The resultant assessment growth, coupled with new and increased sources of revenue such as Waterloo North Hydro dividends, sent the township on a spending spree, little of the growth a boon to citizens. As with the region, much of that growth got sucked into the black hole of staff increases, higher wages and pet projects that provide little benefit to the public, often doing harm instead.

Typically, proposals to  reduce spending  become threats of cuts to service levels, with the implication that citizens would receive less in the way of frontline services and programs. That terminology is disingenuous at best: officials know perfectly well there are cuts that can be made without the public even noticing, including staff reductions at the administrative level and adjustments to wages and benefits. Councillors should not be fooled.

Such changes would allow for more money to be channelled into the infrastructure deficit the township likes to discuss when convenient.

Growth is also a culprit in this regard, putting ever-more stress on the current infrastructure while adding to the inventory that will one day require more government money to maintain and replace. And always at a cost greater than the purported benefits of growth.

The downsides of growth – a long list, not limited to the inarguable ecological damage – should be top of mind to local politicians dealing with budgets just now. It’s down that path the conversation needs to go. Specifically, councillors need to challenge the growth mantra.

Woolwich council is not as profligate as the provincial and federal governments. It also has another advantage when it comes to reducing its size: it has no deficits to contend with, which means its cuts will translate into immediate tax savings rather than going to pay down the results of past spending decisions.

There is an inherent resistance to downsizing within bureaucracies. When cuts do come, they typically involve frontline staff, not management and other entrenched bureaucrats. Those affected tend to get lower pay while doing the actual work that is of value to the public. In that light, cuts don’t save as much money as they could, hurt services to the people paying the freight and maintain management layers.

While most of us realize tax increases are inevitable over the long term due to the increased costs for real, hard goods, not just featherbedding, the key is to make them worthwhile.

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, fees for municipal services such as water and sewers are rising at rates well above inflation, as is the case with other utilities. The key to helping residents cope with those increases is to cut other spending so that the net cost is zero. So, if water costs the average resident another $100 a year, property taxes – i.e. other spending – should be cut by a commensurate amount.

The idea is to identify the most essential of services offered to residents, then to begin trimming away at everything else.

As with governments of all stripes, program bloat and internal entitlements become entrenched. In budget deliberations, there is a rationale for every spending request. Taken in isolation, each may make sense, but it’s the role of elected officials to see the big picture, and to nip in the bud empire-building and incremental growth.

This is not a call for wholesale hacking and slashing. We need services. We have to pay for them. Where needs shift into wants, we’ve got more leeway. Where spending does not directly benefit the bulk of the citizenry, the axe should fall.

Longstanding practices of ignoring the public good has led to taxpayer fatigue, adding fuel to those who call for wholesale dismantling of government services.

It’s something to keep in mind as Woolwich works on its budget. In looking at a special levy for infrastructure projects, the township has touched on an issue every municipality has to face. Realistically, the only way to cover the massive costs for essential, hard infrastructure programs while freezing or even cutting taxes is to cut services. That means there are decisions to be made about what to cut and by how much. Of course, there may be places where residents are prepared to pay massive tax increases to keep going as they have in the past, but I’m certainly not willing to bet on it.

Staff here immediately tries to change the channel if such things are even hinted at. That’s also the case at the region and, more visibly, at the provincial level.

Councillors must also be mindful that comparisons to other municipalities that imply there’s room for still-larger tax increases are a red flag rather than an invitation to greater profligacy. See the big picture, not what you’re being directed to see.

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