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Budget 2012: Guelph council in tough spot

The city’s 2013 operating budget will be formally presented to city council one week from today. Seven days later, council will hear public delegations with budget opinions, and about a week after that council will debate and approve operating and capital budgets for Guelph for next year.
And it’s all shaping up to be pretty ugly.
City hall has been spending a lot of time on what it calls the Community Well Being Plan, which has a goal of giving all Guelphites the best possible quality of life. The long lists of cuts that city staff say are needed to get to a 3% base budget increase in 2013 – contained in a document prepared for a budget workshop last week – add up to what might be called the Community Hellness Plan.
Included are proposals to get rid of all of Guelph’s splash pads and wading pools and its only outdoor pool, Lyon Pool – and even drain the water from the fountain in St. George’s Square. The long lists of potential cuts also include such things as eliminating the spring and fall yard waste pickups, as well as killing the two-year affordable bus pass pilot program after just a few months. That’s just a small sampling of the cuts on three separate lists, each more drastic than the last. Many of the listed cuts may be scare tactics and wouldn’t save much money; it almost seems a case of maximum pain for minimum gain, in some instances. An additional $1.3 million worth of cuts weren’t listed and were discussed behind closed doors.
It’s unusual for the public to be getting this sort of peek into the city’s budget at this stage. Normally, the operating budget is made public only when there’s a final draft for council’s consideration. However, Guelph has a new chief financial officer, Albert Horsman, and his arrival has coincided with a series of budget workshops where potential budget details have been released.
The public needs to keep a close eye on this budget, if they value the services on the hit lists. Council seems to be up against a wall. The recessionary 2010 budget, which included unpopular cuts to summer bus service and controversial unpaid days off for city staff, seems to have left a bad taste in many council members’ mouths. They won’t be eager to repeat that experience. But they also know the risks of approving a big tax increase less than two years before the 2014 civic elections. It’s shaping up to be not only ugly, but very tough as well.

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