I have been sitting through hours of pre-pre-budget meetings getting a handle on the Estimates Committee meetings that will begin in early November. For those of you who are not aware, Estimates is when we review the budget for the coming year, make decisions and then send the final budget to Council for final approval.
The City of Brantford is a $120,000,000 corporation and we make multi-million dollar decisions during every estimates process. This brings me to the point of this column: the absolute need for Council to act as the Board of Directors of a large corporation, and establish and implement rational and sound financial strategy and budgetary policy.
This week we will be debating a resolution I have proposed for a Taxpayers Bill of Rights (I write the columns Monday morning for publication on Thursday, so the resolution will be presented to Committee of the Whole Monday night and Finance Committee on Wednesday evening.) The basis of the resolution, is to 1) engage the public in an open and transparent consultation process that identifies, and requires Council to implement, the rights of each taxpayer within the community; and 2) establishes a high-level vision and structure that requires Council to look at budgetting across multiple years, makes the process as transparent as possible, and provides a format that is equitable to all.
Because of the inherant political structure and nature of Council we often spend more time making political gestures than making sound decisions meant to benefit the taxpayer. Piecemeal or short-term decision-making appears to make a beneficial cut, but often will cost the community exponentially more over time. This is a problem of viewing the budget as a year to year snapshot instead of a fluid process that has to be measured and monitored constantly.
In the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, I have proposed a ceiling on any tax increase in an individual year of 1.5% or in a term of Council of 3%; with a 1% increase allowed within the term of Council for capital. If a Council decides, or is required (for example, the downloading exercise of the 1990's) to increase budgets, then they MUST engage the public in a broad-based community consulation process so that the citizens are informed, and have the opportunity to offer suggestions and opinion.
The Taxpayers Bill of Rights will establish a process that keeps Council operating on the overall, or high-level view of the budget, and stops us from breaking out individual elements without concern for the the long-term consequences of a short-term decision. It will focus Council on decisions that have rational and far-reaching impacts on the functioning of the budget.
This is not to say that we will not be setting policy for services that the muncipality provides for the community, but, for example, instead of allocating one time budget increases for an individual domicilary hostel, we view the entire application of funding for the domicilairy hostel beds in the community. Currently, the funding is a cost-sharing with the province and we have approximately 40 beds in our community. In comparison, Hamilton has funding for 1,000 beds and we should be at least 25% of that size. That means we are short the funding for 210 beds, and yet we continue to deal with the funding requests from individual operations, instead of marshalling our resources and lobbying the province to give us what is appropriate for our community. This increases the number of beds, and creates equity for the groups providing this service.
Another example is the volunteer centre that was referred to estimates; the proposal was for the seed funding from the casino revenues for a three year program to regenerate a culture of volunteerism in our community. Why? Because volunteers keep many of the programs in our community functioning, and yet the nature of volunteerism is changing, the volunteer base is aging and the number of volunteers is decreasing dramatically. If programs or organizations can no longer offer the services, or the services begin to function from month to month because of a lack of volunteer support, then those organizations either close, or come to Council for funding, increasing the tax-burden.
A non-tax supported investment in the short-term creates a long-term decrease (or non-increase) of the tax-base in the future.
We now have a world class sporting complex with the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre, and because of increases due to a number of unfortunate decision and circumstances (short time to submit, and unrealistic estimates that have plagued many stimulus dollar proposals in the country) many in the public are concerned about the cost of operating. We could make the decision to run from the cost of operating, and allow the facility to be under-managed and poorly maintained, or we could recognize that a rational investment in the appropriate level of operating funds will provide the proper return on investment that will actually generate money for the facility and decrease the tax-burden.
The Taxpayers Bill of Rights allows for the appropriate investment with a long-term view, while drawing the citizens and ratepayers into the decision-making matrix. It creates a functioning partnership with all the citizens of our community to clearly see the value for the dollar; benchmark, measure, and benefit from the facility and services provided.
To sum up: sound investments, high-level vision and implementation by Council; and budgetting with ceilings, public consultation and transparency as the hallmarks for a renewed and refocused budgetting process.