Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On the boards, by the board

According to the London Free Press, city boards and commissions met today with board of control to defend their budgets before controllers submit their overall budget recommendations to council. Administration had set a generous target for the municipal boards for a three per cent increase above previous funding levels, above both the rate of inflation and growth in the city's assessment revenue. Significantly, the target was set without requiring those boards to justify previous expenditures but only the amounts in excess of them — a lost opportunity to promote restraint and reduce a bureaucratic sense of entitlement to those amounts.* Nevertheless, four boards failed to submit a budget within the target increase, and although their reception has not yet been reported, budget chief Tom Gosnell signaled beforehand a sympathetic disposition.

"They've all had some challenges, but they're not too far out," Gosnell said. "There will be some discussions and we'll see what more can be done, the cases they make."
At the very least, chief administrative officer Jeff Fielding certainly has their ear, and has been advising council not to focus "on areas of the operating budget that achieved target" but instead "to focus on service growth" and consider the requests. As well, the Free Press adds the assertion, not directly but presumably attributable to Gosnell, that "city staff have endured several years of budget cuts." Cuts in this sense must on the whole be taken to mean that some departments have not received every increase requested, since municipal spending has risen in the past six years well over the rate of hikes being proposed this year; certainly "staff" themselves have not endured cuts. Making apologies for the boards' requests in advance may constitute either a warning to taxpayers that the requests will be accommodated, at least in part, or a memo to appease and maintain internal relations if requests are not granted. When expectations of constituents are to be addressed, the city is reminded that municipal departments, boards, commissions and other civic organizations are its more immediate constituents than taxpayers — politicians and administrators must face them every day instead of once in four years. The history of this board suggests that the apologies serve both purposes, and that some or parts of the requests will be recommended to council.

The total of requests exceeding targets is $1.5 million, or an additional 0.4 points on top of the preliminary tax levy increase of 4.3 per cent. The offending boards are:
  • City police, 4.6 per cent (above a target of 3.7 per cent in this case). "Most of the increase is related to pay wage hikes related to the hiring of 113 officers over the last few years."
  • Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, 12.6 per cent, "after several years of underfunding by the province and city." Notably, the UTRCA received a 7.9 per cent increase in funding from the city last year, and an overall 14.3 per cent increase since 2003. Further, it has not provided the city with information or reason for requested amounts for "lands and facilities" and "research" that make up $120,000 of their requested $207,000 increase. This is no doubt because council does not have express control over the Authority's budget. [Regulated Programs PDF]
  • London Middlesex Housing Corp., 14.3 per cent. Requests are due to a projected decline in revenue receipts, the costs of "collective agreement impacts," utilities, property taxes and insurance. Municipal funding of the Housing Corp. increased over 65 per cent between 2003 and 2006, from $2.6 million to $4.3 million, and the request would push the amount to $4.9 million. Although the Housing Corp. is a regulated program, Council has the authority under the Social Housing Reform Act of 2000 to "amend, delete or add to any of the accountability rules" set out under regulations. "It is open to Council to add a rule or rules which would provide express control over the budget." [Ibid.] Now would apparently be a very good time to start.
  • London Public Library, 4.6 per cent. The city's funding of the Library increased 14 per cent between 2003 and 2006, averaging an annual 4.8 per cent increase, and the Library is forecasting further increases above the 3 per cent target in the next two years. [Council Direct Control PDF] The city spent $52 per resident on libraries in 2005, well above the $44 median of other Ontario municipalities, according to the city's Financial Report Card 2006. The city does have express control over the Library's budget, and may likely deny this request from a board that has directed very little restraint over spending.
New controller Gina Barber is expected to be a strong supporter of at least the Housing Corporation's and Conservation Authority's requests, as well as quite likely the Library's.

The Free Press article also notes that board of control was scheduled today to review capital spending options as well as other requests from city groups and organizations, including the Grand Theatre, Palace Theatre, London Ski Club, Fanshawe Chorus London, Salvation Army, London Regional Children's Museum and Boys’ and Girls’ Club of London. With a tax levy increase of at least 4.3 per cent, it is needless to say that London ratepayers cannot afford these requests — except through their voluntary donations and patronage, if they should choose. The $83.7 million draft capital budget includes the following proposals that should be struck or at least reduced, but most of which will likely be approved:
  • Grants to the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College, $1.5 million,
  • New North London recreational centre, $4.2 million,
  • Parks projects, $3.3 million,
  • Social housing, $4.2 million,
  • Woodland acquisition, $300,000, and
  • "Enriched Cultural Identity," i.e., municipally owned heritage buildings, $200,000.
Elimination of these capital project requests alone would reduce the city's budget by $13.7 million, reducing the property tax levy increase down to a more manageable 0.7 per cent. By such simple acts, council could at least begin moving toward fiscal responsibility, some relative relief for the long-suffering taxpayers of London, and — eventually perhaps — restored economic competitiveness. This, however, would only be chopping off the tip of the iceberg — there are many other items that could be cut or reduced as well.

On a related note, the city is distributing a print Budget Guide 2007 — light to moderate on information and moderate to heavy on unprepossessing propaganda — that includes a quote from Budget Chief Tom Gosnell describing the extravagance of the city's spending increases this year and last compared to those of previous years:
"We are heading in the right direction."
Such are the low expectations of the people controlling London's finances.

*We do note that, according to the article, at least some boards that are regulated by the province, like the Upper Thames Conservation Authority and the Middlesex-London Health Unit, are only legally "obliged to submit bills to the city." If this is not a gross oversimplification, the city's targets must have been in the first place either simply a willful pretense of restraint for public consumption or a request to the boards to continue only deferring spending to future years. However, in either case the city would neither be in a position to debate the requests nor to deny them. To the extent that boards and commissions are regulated independently of the city that finances them, it would be more appropriate for local politicians to devote their lobbying efforts to the province to amend this situation, rather than simply begging for more money.


Anonymous said...

I have been reading this blog occasionally for the last 6 months and have found some interesting comments. However; there is a problem with those of us who read the internet and Council. The city management only cares who is in the theater during the board meetings. I have been the only ousider along with 3 people in the college age group. Sarcastic comments from staff that people should be watching football not the budget is allarming yet many people who want to see the city change are not watching and participating.

In the public participation meetings there was only 1 speaker to state the taxes are to high and the remainder special interest groups requesting more money. The young lady reading an excellent prepared speach was 35ish and ignored, and based on behavior of city staff and council belittled by disregard.

We all want to see the city change and discussing it is very important, but if we are to make a difference in the city based on present procedure and stiffled democracy, get out to board of control meetings to let them know we are watching.

Give up 2 hours of internet and TV to make a change or we will have no changes in city hall and a much longer blog with no action from those in power.


MapMaster said...

Thanks for the comment, and your points are well made and kindly taken. Participation at council and board meetings is restricted, in part I think, because the scope of the city's affairs and interventions exceeds the perception of even many highly interested and motivated individuals — not to mention the various difficulties of obtaining more than cursory information on the subject — rendering in most an impotent sense that the city's waste, mismanagement, misdirected social engineering, taxes and spending will inexorably continue to grow. As well, to some people — especially those who don't directly pay property taxes — the external appearances are satisfactory; what is more difficult and abstract to perceive are the lost opportunities and squandered potential of London. In the end, the distance, preponderousness and byzantine organization of city administration deters the advocacy of all but the most determined — except, of course, for those organizations and interests that have something directly to gain from the proceedings.