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City budget shell game

Council managed to get its 2013 operating budget increase below 3%, as it had set out to do back in July. But questions remain about how this year’s budget process unfolded.
Back in July, it seemed a tall order for city staff to meet a 3% target. At their first budget workshop, councillors were told the city was facing a $12-million, or 6.81%, increase in its base budget costs for 2013. Other changes in the works for the 2013 budget were tallied to add $3 million, bringing the total budget increase to 8.53%.
It’s a long way from 8.53% down to 3%. So staff deserve a lot of credit for finding ways to bring a budget with a 3.25% increase in the tax levy to last Wednesday’s budget debate night. It was close enough to 3% that you figured council wouldn’t have much trouble driving the budget down more, perhaps quite a bit more.
Then something odd happened. Council debated for close to five hours, only to find itself stuck at the very same 3.25%. Not a single request for new staff had been turned down by council, despite some close votes. Council decided to remain part of the small minority of cities that send snow plows onto sidewalks. The complexities of how some things were being funded through special funds, rather than through taxes, made parts of the proceedings seem like an elaborate shell game.
If it seemed a bit like theatre of the absurd to end up back where you started after hours of debate, it seemed even more so when Coun. Jim Furfaro threw a grenade into the mix at around 11 p.m. He proposed a hiring freeze for 2013 – not just a freeze, in fact, but a staff reduction by not replacing people who retire from city hall.
Why was Furfaro’s drastic motion made near the end of budget night, rather than earlier in the budget process when its implications might have been studied?
Given how things ended up, why did the budget process include doom-and-gloom talk as recently as a Nov. 6 budget workshop – about such drastic measures as possibly having to close all the city’s splash pads and wading pools and draining the fountain in St. George’s Square?
And how will staff find $500,000 in further efficiencies during 2013, as they’ve been told to do, given how tight the budget is already supposed to be.
All in all, this budget was a bit of a head-scratcher.

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