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Region needs to look within to find cuts to offset inflationary pressures

Chances are you’re having to make some adjustments in your life given the massive inflationary pressures just now. Maybe that’s altering the grocery list due to the large increase in food prices or cancelling travel plans due to gasoline costs. Whatever the case, there’s little recourse from rising prices.

The Region of Waterloo has a different take on its rising costs: you can pay for it.

Bureaucrats are already making plans to increase the ever-growing assault on your wallet. There’s no talk of cutting spending to compensate for the extra costs. No, simply easier to add another 5.5 to 6.8 per cent to your tax bill – the increase needed to meet a projected $4- to $6-million in next year’s budget. That would mean another $120 to $150 for each homeowner.

Leaving aside the notion that increased prices will continue indefinitely – a spurious assumption – and the fact the tax increases would be a permanent money grab for a temporary problem, there’s no talk of managing the extra costs internally.

Rising fuel prices, for instance, have the region predicting a $9-million budget shortfall this year. But rather than cutting back – say, reducing routes on the lightly used transit system – the go-to move is simply taking more from taxpayers, with no recognition of the burdens residents already face.

No, it’s simply an excuse for another trip to the well that’s treated as bottomless. Such is the nature of government bureaucracy, with seemingly no one working to correct the situation.

As I’ve noted here before, local bureaucracies suffer every bit as much from the kind of bloat and uselessness defined in Parkinson’s Law.

Worse still, as budget talks have shown, municipalities are prone to the Law of Triviality, another of Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s dictums whereby “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”

By that he means just what we’re used to seeing today: some long discussions of minor budget items, leading at times to easy cutting around the edges, but little regard for the bigger items, which are glossed over quickly.

Municipal government is not typically as profligate as the provincial and federal governments. It also has another advantage when it comes to reducing its size: there are no deficits with which to contend, 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 that provide little if any value.

Any talk of reversing years of above-inflation tax increases – leaving aside poorly rationalized utility fee increases – and rolling back both staff numbers and payroll is met with the utmost resistance. Apologists, both staff and politicians, quickly resort to saying any changes would result in cuts to frontline services, as if that’s the only recourse … and a truth in and of itself. It’s not.

Citizens, however, might have other suggestions rather than such cuts, starting with rollbacks to pay and extending to layoffs and reductions of salaries. A multi-year freeze, at any rate.

That’s beyond the pale for bureaucrats.

Given that wages make up the largest single expense for municipalities, local councils are predisposed to pass on those costs to taxpayers without a second thought.

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 in each and every budget session. 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 normally tries to change the channel if such things are even hinted at. That’s the case at the local and regional levels and, more visibly, at the province. Meanwhile, the debt continues to grow by the second.

Indefinite tax freezes are not feasible. But now would be a good time for politicians to show our money is being used wisely. Of late, we’re just not seeing that.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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