Building a Better Budget Process for Thunder Bay

City Council needs a new process for creating a budget
City Council needs a new process for creating a budget

City Council needs a new process for creating a budget
City Council needs a new process for creating a budget

Late Nights and Last Minute Cuts Not the Path to Success

THUNDER BAY – EDITORIAL – Thunder Bay City Council ratified the 2015 Budget last night with a 3.18% tax increase.

In passing the budget, Council also demonstrated that an entirely new approach to the budget process is needed.

Last night as Council gathered to ratify the 2015 Budget, Councillor Rebecca Johnson brought forward a long list of proposals.

These proposals were to remove expense items from the budget.

Those cuts included closing Strathcona Golf Course, cutting the Sister City program, closing the zoo at Chippewa Park, and cutting areas of spending including a $12,500 budget for meals for Council meetings.

Council Needs Time to Plan

Mayor Hobbs called the idea of trimming meals during Council meetings “Over the top”.

Councillors had a few opportunities last night to demonstrate that they are carrying or sharing in part of the burden that many ratepayers are feeling in ever increasing tax burdens in the city. In voting to keep $12,500 for meals, Council showed that a small gesture was not forthcoming on their side.

While some in the community have called for pay cuts for Councillors, that move was put aside with the Mayor expressing that Council pay rates have been the same since 1997.

Several of the Councillors were expressing frustration over the proposals brought in last night to trim the budget, and were saying that to do that would be to work in the dark.

Better Planning Develops Better Budgets

The middle ground is in finding a solution to how the City of Thunder Bay builds the annual budget. The process should be an ongoing, all year effort, where areas for improvement can be found and brought to the starting line as the budget is being developed.

Planning and preparation of the budget should be ongoing. Instead of ending up with late night sessions, last night’s session ended just after midnight, the process could be streamlined.

The proposals that Councillor Johnson brought forward in some cases to bring along a majority of Councillors would need study and reports.

That process should be done.

Then in the preparation of the 2016 budget, those measures could be considered with Council and Administration working together could be bringing in the draft budget.

Administration would then know from such a unified process of developing the budget the direction that Council was heading. Councillors would have the opportunities they said last night they would need to make informed decisions.

Residents would have the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way if that budget building process included public town hall meetings.

Core Review by Council and Administration

Several programs need to be reviewed, and looked at for their return on investment. Council and Administration along with the public need to work on a core review. That should be the task of the Budget Committee. Bringing in outside consultants would be a last resort if the goal is saving tax dollars.

Last night, Council supported keeping the Sister City program afloat. Several Councillors, and residents have wondered about the return on investment on that program.

There have been positives from the program; increased foreign student enrolment at Confederation College is one of those benefits of the program for example.

City Clerk John Hannam explained last night how the Sister City program, in 2006 was primarily a citizen driven effort. Perhaps that is a move heading into 2016 that could be explored.

Plan, Plan, Plan!

Setting in place the planning for the budget can’t come together in one night, or even in a series of late night sessions. It needs to be, just like your home budgeting an ongoing process.

Thunder Bay is going to be facing challenges over the coming years. The federal and provincial governments are facing tighter economic times. Getting support from the senior levels of government may become harder and harder to find.

Keeping our budget tight, and setting a goal of being a city with opportunities will help send the message to prospective new businesses that Thunder Bay is a place to invest.

A new and more engaged budget process would help achieve that goal.

James Murray