We get what we voted for

The average homeowners, carrying a mortgage and perhaps a car loan or some other debt, just received notice that their daughter’s dance lesson fees are going up and school fees are rising. And every hockey or soccer road trip costs more. Never mind that grocery prices are also up, month after month.

The average homeowners, carrying a mortgage and perhaps a car loan or some other debt, just received notice that their daughter’s dance lesson fees are going up and school fees are rising. And every hockey or soccer road trip costs more. Never mind that grocery prices are also up, month after month.

Against this rampant inflation, their income isn’t keeping pace. And they want to save for their retirement and other longer-term life goals.

How do they best address those costs?

By making choices, based on all the factors at hand.

Mortgage and other lending interest rates remain astonishingly low, so accelerating your loan payments and diverting money away from day-to-day costs seems like the wrong choice, on balance. Debt is never a great thing, but sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. And sometimes diverting significant money into savings, in the short term, just isn’t feasible.

Most families would choose to ensure their quality of life remained relatively unaltered instead, by paying the extra for various programs, and spending less in other areas, like consumer goods. In essence, they are willing to let the debt linger and will deal with it later, when their income improves or expenses decline. And they defer or trim savings plans. The alternative, to deprive their family of quality of life, is not a choice they would happily make.

If you run a multimillion-dollar civic entity, should your choices be any different, particularly when you are making those choices on behalf of the very families whose income isn’t keeping pace?

We can’t, and shouldn’t, quibble with the bottom line of the recent Red Deer city council budget deliberations: a $272.6-million budget and a 2.2 per cent increase in taxes to fund ongoing operations seems fair. Inflation and expectations always rise, and so too will taxes to keep pace, and 2.2 per cent is modest.

The other 2.1 per cent of the 4.32 per cent tax increase goes to savings, to pay debt, and prepare for future debt. The capital budget for 2012, at $94.8 million, is relatively modest, but longer-term projects that are planned will require greater financing. And this is where many taxpayers will reject council’s decision-making.

Each of us would have made different choices about some programs (or the contrarians among us, including Councillor Chris Stephan, would apparently have made different choices on many or all programs).

But we entrusted council to look after our money and ensure we get the best possible services for that money.

When we elected them, they were clear about their personal priorities, and those are now reflected in the work the group does. The only candidate in the 2010 municipal election who made a big deal about spending restraint was Stephan. The rest talked in reassuring tones about prudent spending but none of them campaigned as fiscal hawks.

For the most part, this council has remained true to its promises, individually and collectively. A tax increase of 2.2 per cent to manage programs and services is consistent.

Certainly there are areas where questions remain. The movement to formulate and adopt six charters to help define the city’s mission statement will take $200,000 out of the operating budget and $400,000 out of reserves. A great deal of work must be done on these charters before they provide the kind of worthy civic mantra that council apparently envisioned when they first talked publicly about the project last August.

But maybe the project should take longer, and the expense be spread out over more years, to make the total cost more palatable.

And the communications department at City Hall seems to gobble an unnecessary amount of money. Certainly it is important to keep citizens informed, but a $925,000 budget seems excessive.

In the end, we need to trust council to manage our money and ensure our quality of life is maintained.

And we need to have confidence that the savings they are building up will help provide critical infrastructure in the longer term, but isn’t too aggressive and based on unreasonable expectations.

And then we can go back to the business of our lives, making ends meet as best we can.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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