City council should examine base budgets

Last week, the president of the United States delivered his much-anticipated State of the Union address to the American people. Perhaps now would be a perfect time for our own State of the City commentary to the residents of Red Deer.

Last week, the president of the United States delivered his much-anticipated State of the Union address to the American people. Perhaps now would be a perfect time for our own State of the City commentary to the residents of Red Deer.

Please remember that much of what follows is only one person’s opinion, but the issues touched on below have such broad, sweeping impact as to be ongoing buzz-topics leading up to the civic election this fall — certainly worthy of ongoing public debate.

We’ve just concluded another budget process down at City Hall. While the approved tax increase for 2010 of 3.31 per cent is not only reasonable but indeed laudable, it is also unfortunately unsustainable going forward, given the city’s recent history of near double-digit tax increases since 2004.

The 7.59 per cent increase approved in 2004, described then as a temporary “course correction,” has become more lasting than anticipated.

We’ve seen tax increases of: 9.22 per cent, 9.76 per cent, 8.66 per cent and 6.98 per cent for the years 2006 to 2009 respectively (the figure for 2005 was unavailable at time of writing).

The average tax increases over this period for Alberta’s five largest cities were: Calgary (5.9 per cent), Edmonton (5.3 per cent), Red Deer (8.7 per cent), Sherwood Park (6.9 per cent) and Lethbridge (6.7 per cent).

Times have been tough, no question about it. But tough times often provide an opportunity for important introspection. They sometimes even pave the way for much needed change.

The biggest weakness of our current budget process is this: the base budgets of each department are not presented to or reviewed by council — ever. The operating budget that council annually debates contains merely a long list of department funding requests, over and above the base.

We speak of council establishing service levels that reflect citizens’ values and priorities, though in reality, administration determines most of these service levels in their base budgets.

It’s hard to effect meaningful oversight — to cut or expand service levels, or to reflect community priorities — when you don’t review the vast majority of each department’s actual expenditures, at least in summary form.

Councillors’ hands, no matter how diligent and hard working, are nonetheless, partially tied by this procedural limitation.

Councils in each of the five largest cities have access to and regularly review at least a summary of each department’s base budget, except in Red Deer. We used to do it here as well, until the mid-1990s, when the council of that day made the change.

The need rigorously to debate this single issue alone, at City Hall and in public forums, cannot be overstated.

On to the civic yards relocation to Three Mile Bend. Stop anyone on the street and ask about that project. The people of this community seem to have a collective voice on the matter: it’s the Taj Mahal of civic yards.

All I have room to say about this issue is that the preliminary proposed costing for the entire relocation was originally pegged at approximately $28 million back in 2004. How it went from around $28 million to over $120 million in just a few short years, even accounting for expanded project scope and a white-hot economy, is one of the great wonders of our time.

Then there’s the city’s public art policy, which is currently being reviewed and hopefully revised. That’s a whole column of its own.

Suffice to say that greater restrictions need to be implemented (for example, limit to places the public actually gathers and frequents), less money ought to be allocated per project (lower the 1.0 per cent down to 0.5 per cent) and a trigger dollar amount (say, anything over $20,000 allocated to art) needs to return to council for approval.

On a positive note. How about those new oversized, arrowed street signs that have popped up on light standards all over the city? How have we lived without them all these years?

This brainchild of councillor Gail Parks has been a huge hit with motorists, and evidence from other municipalities suggests that they may also reduce intersection collisions as well. Bonus. Well done.

The changes we need at City Hall are largely procedural and strategic. The outstanding city employees I’ve encountered through the years, both management and staff, are hard-working and dedicated not only to their careers, but to our great community.

What we need is a procedural paradigm shift to give council greater oversight and control in a few key areas to more meaningfully establish service levels and direct the city’s agenda.

Vesna Higham is a former Red Deer city councillor.

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