Editor: Elected leaders of Chatham-Kent will begin 2021 budget deliberations this week and have gone into them the same way they always do – without providing clear and resolved direction to municipal staff on budget targets, and without a real sense of urgency. Even a pandemic that has upended the economy and the livelihoods of many taxpayers has not been enough to disrupt the ho-hum budget culture and process that has existed in Chatham-Kent for legions of mayors and councils.
And so we end up with a budget that more reflects the perspectives, costs and interests of city staff than it does the everyday reality of Joe Taxpayer. A budget that is usually so far off that reality that it has little chance of closing the gap over the perfunctory 3 nights of nickel and dime chiseling that council seems to limit themselves to.
Back in August there appeared to be some initial indication of this year’s budget direction from council to municipal staff – “a tax freeze, zero per cent budget increase.” And while it is not clear, it sounds like there might have also been a caveat to that directive – that there be no reduction in service levels. Since then, council has made some decisions that staff has interpreted as inconsistent with that directive and is now messaging that the they are not clear on what council wants and that a tax freeze cannot be achieved without reductions in service levels.
And if that were not enough of a preview to what we can expect the budget outcome to be, management further stated that they should follow the lead of “all similar municipalities in Ontario” and raise taxes in the three-per-cent to eight-per-cent range “with few exceptions” if services are not reduced.
Shame on council if they were not clear and complete in the directions and objectives that they provided municipal staff for the 2021 budget. Hopefully they were very clear when it came to service reductions, and if they were, what is wrong with asking your staff to strive for that?
How come “loss of services” is always and immediately brought up as a consequence in these matters? Yes, there is a cost associated with services, but there are many components to cost that can be explored and re-thought. There is such a thing as innovation and creativity in finding different and more efficient ways to deliver similar outcomes/services.
Is it just me, or does it feel like executive management and their staff are trying their best to explain why they cannot meet the objectives set before them by their bosses, and in fact set an expectation of where it will land – before the deliberations even begin? Why does it feel like the tail is always wagging the dog when it comes to the operation of C-K’s business, beginning with the budget process?
Chatham already has some of the highest taxes in Ontario on a property value basis. Yes, we also have some of the lowest property values but that does automatically imply that its residents are able or willing to pay higher and higher taxes, year after year.
Public sector employees – the same ones that are constructing C-K’s budget – do not have anything to complain about when it comes to wages and benefits. And the economic impact from the COVID pandemic has been far lighter on them than it has on the private sector. Executive management and staff would do well to “walk in the shoes” of Joe Taxpayer as they do their budget work. In the very least, COVID compels you to focus on compromise and cost-reduction.