Boy, was I wrong. About 75 people showed up to last night’s City budget meeting in the Sports Action Lounge, totally blowing my prediction, which was based on turnouts in previous years.
though some of the concerns expressed weren’t totally on topic, it’s a good sign.
By the way, the winning number in the City staff-council betting pool on how many would attend was 40.
Here’s what I wrote the day of the meeting:
There won’t be a big crowd tonight when City council meets with the public at 7 o’clock in the Interior Savings Centre.
Each year, members of council chip in a few dollars each and run a little pool on how many will show up. If you were to guess somewhere between a dozen and 15, you’d have a pretty good chance of collecting the winnings.
As entertainment goes, the annual budget consultation isn’t a ratings booster. It’s about as gripping as waiting for the phone to ring, or watching someone else check text messages on his IPhone.
Most people go into the meeting with little clue of what council has in mind for taxpayers. They watch staff make their presentations and try to react, or they ask questions about pet peeves vaguely related to the budget.
It’s not that these sessions are a waste of time but nobody has yet figured out a way to entice people into giving up an evening in front of the tube to go watch a Powerpoint with numbers.
The entire budget process is a mixed bag of smoke, mirrors, grueling numbers crunching, and genuine soul searching. It’s a process that’s evolved over the years to one that is relatively efficient but still subject to hope, prayer and political whim.
Few councilors are courageous enough to delve into the actual budget document itself, a tome that would make War and Peace seem like a mere pamphlet, but with a balance sheet.
It’s the result of weeks and months of work by staff during which each department head proposes a spending plan and then defends it during a collective grilling by other managers led by CAO Randy Diehl.
They start with the essentials, the unchangeables, and work from there. Things like staff salary increases and inflationary costs of supplies are regarded as must-do’s. Up for grabs are services and equipment that aren’t immediately pressing.
Ideally, the City would use zero-based budgeting, a system that tosses out all previous budgets and starts from scratch, so that each and every line is subject to examination. But no one at City Hall has ever been willing to tackle it, so daunting and complex is this budget.
Staff then presents a tentative budget to council that includes so-called “supplemental” budget expenditures. This is a relatively short list that council spends most of its time debating, saving it the trouble of going through the entire document.
It’s where a bit of smoke and mirrors comes in. For entirely political reasons, mayor and council have annually settled on roughly two per cent as an acceptable increase from the previous year’s numbers.
This takes care of inflation and a few other additions, but seems to keep taxpayers relatively happy. There are years when two per cent is ridiculously low given the needs of the community, but council doggedly sticks to it.
Two per cent sounds not bad (1.99 is even better), and few ever calculate the compounding effect of that over the years.
To get there, council looks at a four- or five-per cent budget as presented by staff that includes the “supplementals.” By whittling away at that list they pare things down to the targeted two per cent.
It reads pretty well in the headlines — it’s basic psychology, like making bad news sound even worse than it is, then softening it a little.
Council could just as easily tell staff up front that it wants a two-per-cent budget increase and save a lot of time, but then council members would have nothing to do at all, and we wouldn’t get to watch them agonize over where to cut in order to protect the ol’ taxpayer.