Finally…. Budget is in full swing… Am I the only one who liked it when the 2000 pages of budget documents dropped a week before Christmas for people to go through in less than a month? I miss the good old days…
On The Process
If you recall back in January I was critical on twitter about the process through which the budget committee met. There was no live stream, media only covered first and last day (stories here, here, here) and the CAO said it wasn’t appropriate for the public from attending – didn’t stop the Chamber of Commerce presenting. What we had reported was that through some pulling from reserves the proposed levy slipping under 5%.
I standby my earlier comments that this should have been lived streamed. In a “post-COVID world” no municipal meeting should be conducted without a streaming option. The fact that now the levy has risen due to other factors make understanding the specific decisions and questions that were asked by council members during the committee even more important.
They already pulled from some reserves, so which ones? They may have debated delaying certain projects or investments already, how do we which ones? The process was flawed and needs to be better in the future.
Speaking of flaws, the summary of the City Public Engagement efforts is laughable and frankly the City should be ashamed that was allowed to be put forward. Here is the summary from the budget report:
It is quite possible that City Councillor saw more detailed information but since the Budget Committee Sessions were not live streamed, it is impossible to say. If city administration is so weak in their position that they are unwilling to transparently articulate specific reductions and areas where people want investment at a ward by ward level from the public, it is pretty striking. I completely accept that most people don’t know or understand how the city is run, but it is the responsibility of the City government to educate, inform and engage. Almost every other survey the city completes, sees question answers shared with Ward by Ward breakdowns of responses, that fill up pages of a report. Whether development, traffic calming, or environmental issues, councilors see reports filled with statistics, why not here? The fact that they are planning on spending $18,000 in 2023 to repeat this process, the definition of insanity is to repeat the same process over and over again and expect a different outcome.
I saved the originally published operational budget and the updated version with the idea of comparing. Unfortunately it isn’t the easiest document to compare. Based on the media reports generally the budget committee nipped and tucked, pulled from reserves on some items. I actually support using reserves in this case largely because that is why they are there – to be used in times where things are tough and their are financial pressures to offset.
This is why I fully expect the Mayor’s comments on getting the tax increase on the budget under 5% will likely happen it is just a question of where the nipping and tucking occurs.
To be honest, only two Recommended Issue that caught my eye as many of the increases were inflationary or contractual change.
- $50,000 for the Community Safety and Well Being Plan implementation is a 50% with the county. Given the 80 pages and numerous recommendations I guess the question is, is this enough? To me it seems there isn’t much push for leadership, I get that there are other aligned activities but without funding you are just relaying on the status quo or a grant to make progress.
- The other recommended change was the perennial attempt to eliminate the rodent control program subsidy or attach a new user fee to the program. This will save $24,000. As my dog regularly kills rats (a few times per year) and myself and my neighbours have all participated in this program. Why are you going to make me pay?
As for the Not Recommended:
- 24 of the items were in camera – lots of staff layoffs not happening.
- Over $544,000 for data analytic positions. In 2019 the City hired a consultant who recommended this position in the economic development to do things like – create 311 call dashboards, automated by-law and financial reporting. All in it would save 3.5 FTE worth of time at the cost of hiring one person. This is where an investment mindset is needed not just a cost one.
- Not recommended the elimination of data plans for Ipads for Seniors program at the library that would have $7,300! Passing up a 0.00037% savings on the operational budget.
- BIA Maintenance budget is not be recommended to be eliminated to save $22,000. I am curious, if the entire City Council would be in conflict of interest on this item as they are all the Board of the BIAs. I guess not but it is an interesting question.
Ah the capital budget…. Where the city builds things.
First I want to point out what I think is a new feature of the capital budget. In the appendix of the Capital Budget Report (PDF Page 18) there is a screening for climate impacts and mitigation where some of the major projects are. Two projects will according to this assessment screen move the City further away from it’s climate goals. There isn’t much there on the methods or how they arrived at their conclusions in my opinion but it is certainly interesting. I am sure climate advocates will have much more to say about this section and the screening process.
As Councillor Francis points out the Asset Management levy is a major part of this years tax level (just over 1% of the levy) but the budget report hints that in an update that will be coming in 2024, this amount may need to go up as the current levy does not cover all of the City’s Assets.
Interesting is the contrast with the Mayor and Councillor Gignac who are supporting increasing the AMP to support residential road reconstruction (something that is needed) now, when another increase could be needed next year as well. The other interesting piece are the elements of the budget that are currently and largely unfunded:
Some of these elements are waiting for studies like the Sandwich South Service Master Plan which is funded in 2023. One of the challenges here is that each of these plans is often spread over numerous budget items. So there are dozens of sewer projects in the coming years so it makes it hard to see how a particular plan is progressing.
Overall the capital budget breaks down like this, I included the 2022 proposed capital budget for comparative purposes.
Project’s that caught my eye:
- The final sections of Walker Rd were pushed back which is interesting to me. In the 2022 budget, it was slated to expend 1.4M starting in 2028 through the early 2030s, now it is only 800k with $6M being place holdered for 2032. About $14M is outstanding on this project.
- Only $6M of the estimated $30M has been set aside for the University Ave. reconstruction. Long way from the Mayor’s Parisian vision.
- $9.8M for parking lot “development”, “new parking” and “capital for garages” across 3 project areas. Largely an unchanged amount from last year but that is a 2% increase just for parking – Windsor loves it parking!
- Transit Garage that was in the 2022 proposed budget has been removed from the 2023 budget.
- Adie Know reimagining looks secure with $27 Million place-holdered between now and 2028.
- Central Riverfront Improvement Plan & Civic Esplanade / Plaza had in the 2022 budget only $15M allocated to it, Now it has $27.5M – some of this funding is allocated to the Legacy Beacon project.
- Ward funds are allocated in a big $1.6M chunk this year, I assume councilors can spread it out, otherwise nothing until 2027 when only 1.1M is held.
Are something that are important and it is interesting to see what is going up and not going up. A few highlights:
- Pretty much all community programs – swimming at your local pool, skating at your arena, youth program, space rentals, materials for spaces (tables, chairs etc.) are going up ~3% etc.
- In the context of inflation this isn’t that bad but as always, things are getting more expensive. An extra $0.50 to go to Adventure Bay when it is barely open is a lot to ask IMO.
- Transit Fares are going up by 2% which seems to be the annual plan going forward. Interestingly Amherstburg is included in a new “regional fare structure” which may be a structure for other municipalities to come online.
- Building fees seem to be going up by 5-7%. It will be interesting given the timeline requirements that the Ford government has put in place around approvals if this added fee gets paid back to developers?
- One fee that didn’t go up were business licensing – certainly small businesses face challenges but I am curious why a similar fee raise wasn’t implemented there.
Overall this budget debate will likely be shaped around the price tag to taxpayers. Adding another percentage or two to the Asset Management Plan is a clever way to raise revenue without increasing “the levy”. A lot of big capital projects are still unfunded (they have been unfunded for a while) so the question will really become how do we expect to get caught up with the Asset Management Plan growing in 2024. This budget doesn’t include many of the usual poison pill items (close all the libraries) trying to get to balance. The lack of those items actually illustrated how constrained some of the City’s fiscal position is.