Sault Ste. Marie City Budget 2015: Putting on the Brakes!

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Well, it’s been about a week since the Municipal Budget was completed down at City Hall, and it has already slipped from our collective consciousness. City Council managed to find a way to whittle a projected 4.6% tax increase down to a much more palatable 1.89% hit to the wallet, so everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief, considered ourselves lucky, and life moved on. That is, until next year, when the specter of paying more comes a-calling, once again.

As for me, I’ve been mulling the whole thing over in my head, trying to congeal things together, until I had something meaningful to say about it. This delay is fortuitous, because it gave me a chance to lick my wounds, and rebuild my rattled self-esteem. For those who were keeping score, I wagered we would see a 2.9% tax increase this year. City Council, probably just to spite me, blew away my projection by more than a full point. I have reconciled myself to the fact that it spells a financial victory, at the expense of my psychic abilities. I’m strangely comfortable with that!

Council, spurred on by our new mayor and a couple of rookie members also facing their first budget deliberations, sent a strong message leading up to the actual Budget meeting; they were not interested in ‘business as usual’. There was a grassroots groundswell of sentiment that perpetually escalating property taxes could not be sustained, and must be tackled head-on. In the end, this resulted in the 1.89% increase eventually settled upon. But how did they do it, exactly, and what does it foretell about future budgets?

This is where it gets a bit sticky. In a nutshell, Council took the easy way out. They dropped the ball; flubbed a genuine opportunity. They had good intentions, pulled off a decent result, but failed to delve into actual budget issues, in any meaningful way.

Okay, that’s enough foreplay – let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of this year’s budget!

Basically, to get us to a 1.89% increase, Council simply took last year’s surplus, and dumped it onto reducing this year’s taxes. Then they gathered up some reserve money that was kicking around, and dumped that onto this year’s taxes. Then they cut a few spending items, approved a couple of new spending items, and poof! We have our result!

So, what does that actually mean? Well, it means that absolutely nothing was done to address costs associated with the core budgets items; things like snow removal, traffic, or staffing costs. It does nothing to address funding for outside agencies, because Council deferred addressing those issues until proper notice could be served to the organizations and agencies that rely upon City funding for their operations.

When you add it all up, it means we essentially kicked the can down the road, and dug ourselves a hole for next year. We still have no clear direction on what we intend to do with funding for outside agencies, and haven’t even scratched the surface on looking for efficiencies within City Hall itself. But it gets even gloomier.

By not increasing funding to core services this year, pressure will mount within each City department, because a huge portion of their expenses come from wage costs, and those workers are eventually going to want to see some wage increases to keep up with cost of living expenses. Add to that the fact there is no guarantee of a surplus next year. Then throw in the specter of a possible downturn in property values (the market is cyclical, so downturns are inevitable), and you have a potential recipe for real pain – tax pain, the worst kind of discomfort!

So, what happened to all that zippy idealism we saw during the election cycle? What happened to the tax revolution?

I’m going to take an optimistic stance on those questions. I do think there is a genuine willingness within Council to attempt the hard work of finding efficiencies, and maintaining reasonable taxation levels. I think the budget just crept up quicker than some of the new Council members expected, and was more complicated than first anticipated. We have a dynamic new Mayor, some fresh faces on Council, and we have new people coming into key positions within City Hall. This should be more than enough to facilitate new thought processes, introduce genuine change. We have a window of opportunity here.

But in order to enact real change, everyone needs to keep their eyes on budget issues, and work them all year long. Average citizens can push it out of their minds and wait to see what happens next year, but if Council wants to really accomplish something significant and lasting, they are going to have to grind it out, month after month. They are going to need to examine every aspect of current costs, nose around in the daily operations of City departments, and pick the brains of everyone involved, to figure out a real plan for next year.

In fact, it might not be a bad idea if Council inserted a brief ‘budget’ discussion into every single meeting they have, from now until next year. It should become a regular feature of every Council meeting, to set aside a small chunk of time dedicated to questions, suggestions, and discussions related to budget matters, so that by the time we face the gauntlet again, tackling the most important aspect of serving on Council, it will feel like meeting an old friend, for lunch.

To sum it all up, it appears that Council slammed the brakes on the big City bus that was headed to Tax Town. They seem to want to avoid reckless driving of our finances, to take a prudent route at an efficient speed, in order to save us some gas money. But as of today, the rest of us are just standing in the glow of the brake-lights, asking ourselves a basic question: where the heck are they going, once they get moving again?

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