One would think very few bureaucrats and politicians start out looking to work the system. Some are looking for an easy ride, others the road to power. Most might want to make a difference. In the end, they’re simply sucked into the black hole that is the political system, from ineffective school boards through to the federal government and the plethora of international organizations.
Such is the nature of the beast, with seemingly no one working to correct the situation.
In the recent case, for instance, of Waterloo Region councillors voting to give themselves lifetime benefits at taxpayer expense, the justifications all came off as weak and self-serving. The public backlash was quick and voluminous. It will likely prompt a reversal.
If only we had such vigilance on the entire range of municipal spending, as local bureaucracies suffer from numerous cases of self-dealing in the form of bloat and uselessness.
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Just new, local municipalities are gearing up for the arrival of new councillors, all of whom will almost immediately be forced into the deep end of budget talks. Such “deliberations” will include 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.
Township councils are not as profligate as the regional body, which in turn is not as wasteful as the provincial and federal governments. Municipal government 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. And rolled-back budgets are essential just now given inflationary pressures on the local citizenry.
There is, however, 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.
Municipal councils all around the region will soon be busy working on their budgets, as taxpayers wait to hear how much more they’ll be forced to pay for no more – and probably less – than they got last year.
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 of council 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 operating 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 new councillors in particular must keep in mind as municipalities work on their budgets. 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 immediately tries to change the channel if such things are even hinted at. That’s certainly the case at the region and, more visibly, at the provincial level, though the cash-strapped government appears ready to cater to its unions rather than serving the public, wasting billions of dollars as a matter of course. 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.