As the 2011 budget inches closer to completion there will be increased pressure on members of council to find areas to slash costs in order to have a tax increase that is as low as possible, or even better many would suggest, to have no increase in taxes at all.
In recent weeks I have myself received plenty of email and letters to the editor in which a variety of potential areas for reduction have been pointed out. And if I am receiving those sorts of email messages, I can only imagine what members of council have been receiving.
The current proposed budget, as has been presented to council, would see the 2011 municipal expenditures rise by 10 percent over last year to nearly $10 million, which would mean that our property taxes would increase by approximately 3.5 percent, assuming that the county and the education components of our tax bill do not increase at all.
This is a budget that conforms to the much debated 'five-year plan' which council adopted in 2009. Under the five-year plan, property taxes are to increase by as much as 5 percent each year for a period of five years. The goal of the plan was originally to pay off an accumulated deficit of nearly $3 million, but after the municipality was forced by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs to find a way to cover that accumulated deficit in one fell swoop, the plan shifted from deficit reduction to a reserve replenishing vehicle.
To some 3.5 percent will seem a reasonable increase, while to others it will be cause for expressions of frustration, and demands for cutting staff, and a reduction of spending.
And while a leisurely read through the proposed operating budget can easily yield plenty of flags for potential reductions, the fact remains, and what nobody will want to hear, is that this council would be well within the mandate given to them by us the voters, if they approved a budget with an overall tax increase of as much as 5 percent.
Yes, it is true. We the electors of Meaford voted in favour of tax increases. We voted to 'stay the course'. Kinda makes it difficult to complain doesn't it?
You see while we can all spend an afternoon working our way through a pot of coffee as we pour over the proposed operating budget with a yellow highlighter in hand to identify areas we feel could be cut, no matter how loudly we voice our opinion, no matter what reason we apply to our own personal suggestions for budget slashing, on October 25 we asked for our taxes to be increased, and that is what council will ultimately approve.
When we elected our Mayor we had two choices. One candidate was calling for change. A 'fresh start' was the catch phrase being bandied about, while the other candidate for mayor, who was ultimately victorious, was a staunch supporter of the five-year plan, and throughout the election campaign told voters that we must 'stay the course' if we ever wanted to dig ourselves out of the massive financial hole that we've been sinking into in recent years.
We elected a Deputy Mayor who also expressed support for the five-year plan while his opponent was having none of it, and was demanding instead that the municipality slash costs to lower taxes.
The majority of the council members we elected stated publicly throughout the campaign that they believed that continuing on with the five-year plan was the right thing to do.
So while our afternoon of romping through the 21 pages of the operating budget would likely use up a lot of the yellow ink from that highlighter, our efforts would be futile because in a democracy, majority rules, and the majority of Meaford voters voted for a council in which the majority of its members publicly supported increasing taxes each year until at least 2013.
So is there any point in suggesting that there is plenty of room for cost savings in the operating budget?
Sure it would get some people agitated if it was pointed out that there is nearly $20,000 in car allowances for senior municipal staff in the proposed budget, while the library is begging for extra money to improve their service.
Legal fees of more than $350,000 in the budget ruffle the feathers of some, while others stick to the basics and demand staff reductions as a way to save valuable dollars, and eliminate the need to increase taxes.
Others have questioned how realistic it is for Meaford Hall to budget for an increase of more than $100,000 in ticket sales over what was budgeted in 2010.
Everything in the budget is a potential target for anyone looking for savings. The pool, the arena, consultant fees, there is something for everyone to pick apart in any budget document.
A member of council recently told me that it is very difficult to reduce costs in a budget because there would be a negative impact on service delivery.
I disagree. I think it is very easy to reduce costs in a budget, the difficulty is in convincing people that the time has finally come not just in this municipality, but in all levels of government and indeed in life in general, where we have to face the fact that perhaps we need to lower our expectations and live with less. Less frills, less service on demand, less stuff. That is the hard sell.
That is the real flaw in any budget process. We tend to cherry pick this item or that, or we hover around the edges of a budget nibbling away at the fringe hoping to trim a little here, scale back a little there, and hopefully in the end we have a document that might not be perfect, it is at least palatable.
What most budget deliberations fail to do is to ask the most difficult question of all- what do we really need? What could we live without? Not what we could be comfortable living without, but what could we through a little sacrifice actually live without?
As a collective, people generally aren't willing to explore that question. We've been conditioned in our society to want more, to expect more, to demand more. We might moan about ever increasing costs, we might struggle to accept an increase in taxation, but we don't seem to be willing to make any actual sacrifices.
So if we want to lobby for cutting costs in hopes of avoiding yet another tax increase, then we are too late. Our chance to do that was in October, and Meaford voters clearly decided they preferred to stay the course.
We wouldn't want our members of council to do anything other than what they said they would do, would we?