‘Tis the season for municipal budgets. This is when our elected representatives look at numbers until their eyes cross, and along with staff, put in untold extra hours.
Working on the budget has none of the glamour of sitting around a council table holding formal discussions on million-dollar projects, or representing the municipality at ribbon cuttings. This is mind-numbing work. Municipal budgets even in this area are substantial, involving millions of dollars – taxpayers’ dollars. Determining where to spend them is a nightmarish tightrope walk. On one side is all the work that has to be done, and the people who do it.
Salaries must be paid (some governed by union contracts), from the top people right on down to the teenager who minds the snack bar at the arena a few hours a week. In a rural area, the municipal government is a major employer.
There is equipment to purchase and maintain, from snow plows to lawn mowers, from computer systems to staplers. Topping the list of “hard services” is road work, a four-season effort involving snow removal, salting, sanding, dust suppression, brush removal and filling in potholes.
Recreation and the so-called soft services always take a fair bite out of the budget, for these are the amenities that people expect when they consider moving to a municipality. They are not frills to be trimmed at will, but investments in the continued viability of the area.
A big factor is the services mandated for municipalities by federal and provincial governments, but not funded. That particular list grows longer every year, limiting the amount of “wiggle room” with what is left.
The list of what council would like to accomplish in the coming year is always a lot longer and more expensive than the list of what needs to be done. And the “needs” list is longer than what can be done without creating too onerous a burden on local taxpayers.
All too often, bringing in a reasonable budget means paring down anything that can be pared, setting aside anything that can wait, and squeezing another year out of something that needed replacing three or four years ago.
Many municipalities, including this one, have been in the uncomfortable position of dividing “urgent” projects into three categories – urgent, meaning it needs to be done soon, but likely will not fall down just yet; urgent, meaning it could very well fall down at any moment; and urgent, meaning it fell down last week. The project in the first pile get put aside – there are too many in the other two piles. The projects in the second pile get sorted very carefully – a couple of the worst ones might get done if there is a chance of someone getting injured.
It is not a cost effective way of doing business. That small repair job tends to become a huge, expensive mess if it is not attended to promptly. But there has not been enough money in municipal coffers for the past decade to do much preventative maintenance. A lot of those former provincial highways and bridges downloaded to municipalities are deteriorating rapidly, and one major road or bridge project takes a huge bite out of a modest municipal budget. So does the cost of servicing the debt to finance the work.
Working out a budget that gets the most urgent jobs done, funds the amenities that residents need in their community, and keeps the taxpayer if not happy, then at least assured he or she is getting good value for the money. It is not an easy task. Cut too much from the budget and work that needs doing, not to mention services people expect, will be hurt. Make no mistake, when municipal officials make cuts, they are not trimming deadwood. Municipalities around here have been running lean and mean for years. They are trimming worthwhile services and projects.
If anyone thinks they could do a better job with the local budget, that taxes are too high and there are things that could easily be cut - there is a municipal election three years from now, just about enough time to start coming to council meetings on a regular basis and learn how local government works. Those who attend on a regular basis find that for the most part, it functions remarkably well.
- Pauline Kerr, special to The Listowel Banner