Two Voices, one issue: C-K budget

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 budget

We’ve always said The Voice is a place where we encourage people to express their opinions about our community. This week Bruce and Jim offer differing views on council’s budget.

Bruce says: Council went too far in its budget trimming last Tuesday. We got down to 0.29% in terms of a tax increase.

That worked out to $7.75 a year more in taxes on an average $160,000 home. That’s half-dozen drive-thru coffees in a year.

Chatham Mazda from Chatham Voice on Vimeo.

Councillors should have stopped there. Instead, with Chatham Coun. Darrin Canniff leading the way, they pulled $396,000 out of principle interest on infrastructure savings – money council knows full well it has to make up next year. That puts the 2016 budget under pressure already.

Jim says: Zero was important for three reasons. There were a number of councillors who campaigned on no tax increase. In this day, having politicians keep promises is all too rare.

Secondly, it took the co-operation of councillors who didn’t necessarily want zero to get the budget approved. It’s a sign that this group may be able to compromise on key issues. That’s a huge step forward.

The third and most important reason is that for the past several years the concept of zero has been blasphemy. We’ve been told it’s impossible without massive service cuts when municipalities all around us have held the line and maintained service.

We needed to break that mindset. This is a start.

Bruce says: First off, there were a lot of exhausted faces around the table when council passed the budget. I am convinced some of the support was more capitulation than co-operation.

The last time Chatham-Kent saw a 0% increase – 2000 – it was followed by a 6.8% hike the following year.

That is historically how C-K council has operated. You get a year or two of lower-level increases and then get smacked by a larger hike.

So maybe they’ll keep taxes low next year, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. And I certainly don’t think council will remain at 0% for another year.

Regardless, there will be a larger increase down the road, thanks to council’s zest for 0% this year.

Jim says: As you said, there is a concern that we will automatically have an increase next year. That’s defeatist thinking. It’s the same mentality that we can’t have a zero increase and maintain services.

It’s saying there is no room for improvement on how we deliver service, what we pay for it or how we prioritize it.

If that’s so, we’re the first human endeavor anywhere to achieve perfection. I don’t buy it.

Bruce says: Oh, there is always room for improvement. And ways to make permanent cuts. But this council, just like its predecessor, has so far shown it is unable to take the tough stance on spending. Pulling money out of reserves, getting lucky on tumbling inflation percentages and putting off issues for a year does not equate to sound long-term thinking.

When it comes to making decisions that will save money – permanently – this council has been found wanting. Just look at how councillors ran screaming in fear from three pages of municipal service review cuts the previous council was too afraid to make in 2013. Administration brought them forward again to open this year’s budget process. Our elected representatives didn’t want to tackle the “ugly list,” as budget chair Derek Robertson called it.

Yes, library closures were on that list. Ditto for fire halls and even the Sydenham Pool. So too were such things as making people shovel the sidewalks in front of their properties, something that is done in many, many other municipalities.

Had any of those items been approved, that would have resulted in a permanent culling of spending.

Even after tossing aside all three pages, councillors were free to cherry pick the list to put an item here or an item there out for discussion. Not one item came back.

Jim says: There’s certainly truth in that, but if we take the attitude that council’s work is done only one year into its mandate, we’re making a mistake. This move should signal to citizens and municipal administrators that things have changed, not for one year but for the foreseeable future.

If staff gets the idea that this is the new reality, this can actually energize them to go out and find more savings because their jobs and their co-workers’ jobs depend on it. A clear direction from council, combined with the action to back it up, could unleash that potential.

It may also impact the municipal service review under way. Too often staff recommendations and the political will to undertake them have been miles apart.

An acknowledgement that we need to live within our means by all concerned can keep us on the right path.

 

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