Metro column: Budget dance a sad song

By DJ Kelly November 19, 2010

Time to end the same ol’ budget song and dance. It’s budget time at city hall once again. Or more accurately, it’s budget adjustment time.

Reading the news you can be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. “Didn’t we just do this last year?” Yes. Yes we did. However administration must figure out how to actually achieve the previously approved budget on an annual basis because of new priorities passed by council since the budget was approved.

While we were all wrapped up in election fever, the city’s workers were hard at work finding the places they could cut to make all the math work.

It’s the same song year after year. No matter the size or actual impact it’s a given the transit union will complain about any cut to transit, the police union will do the same, and advocates of a particular disadvantaged group will decry cuts to that sector as well. Why wouldn’t they? It’s practically the only input they get.

The 2010 edition of the budget shows an offer of savings via a myriad of efficiency improvements and still allows an increase for police and transit peace officers, better snow removal, two new fire stations, more money for 911 service, and $2 million to the Library.

Mayor Nenshi has been to this dance before however. He knows that simply rubber stamping the 6.7 per cent increase is never a simple as it sounds — nor should it be — so he asked the administration to prepare a second report showing where they might additionally cut to knock that number even lower.

Not only is this politically shrewd — it’s always great to say “we cut that to save you from that big scary cut over there” — but it also is just plain useful to know what else could be dumped if we really needed or wanted to.

Ald. Chabot is certainly in favour of deeper cuts, but as he says “I don’t think the intestinal fortitude is there to get it below 5.5 per cent.”

I tend to agree. But is this really the best system for budget deliberation?

After all bureaucrats are not the best ones to ask to reduce bureaucracy. And are rookie aldermen with all of one month experience really that much more skilled at knowing the impact of a $1.4-million reduction versus $1.5 million than any other person plucked off the street?

This dance may finally be coming to an end. The city is examining ways to offer more meaningful engagement with citizens for the next budget cycle.

Our annual budget dance has to end.

This song really is terrible.