This past Monday night I had to make a pretty challenging call on one of our city's most important documents, the budget.
To some, my "no" vote might seem like a no-brainer. Most people’s house assessments went up this year, and the economic headwinds thanks to the price of oil are daunting. Our budget includes tax increases, which seems counterproductive because they could add more downward pressure on the economy.
Couldn’t I just vote "no," insist we cut more costs and services, and pat myself on the back? Technically, yes. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and I’m not really a "black and white" kind of decision maker.
So this decision was very tough. Let me explain.
How did we get here?
First of all, this budget was many months in the making. Not only did staff work diligently and sincerely to develop a three-year (and beyond) plan that provides many services to many people, we even held extensive engagement sessions that helped to guide priorities.
An historic deal was struck with our unionized employees that, while costing millions of dollars in the near term, will prevent a long-term pension crisis. Community enhancements like the new Paul Reynolds Centre in Wedgewood Park are desperately needed in our city, but will add new yearly operating expenses.
But because the Province requires municipalities to balance their budgets, we can't run a deficit to manage these costs over longer periods. That means we have to either find cuts or new revenues to offset the new costs right away.
This monumental task was assigned to our City’s professional and capable staff is, who have put considerable effort into finding a balance among the many demands and pressures inherent in a $300 million budget that affects 100,000 residents in diverse circumstances.
So why did I vote against it?
In spite of this hard work by so many, as well as the highest level of public engagement ever given to our budget, it was in the final weeks that I believe we made our mistake.
While the priorities and needs of our residents had been heard and considered, we neglected to discuss the specific dollar figure decisions -- the revenue increases and cost-cutting measures across multiple services and departments -- with the public.
Instead, we followed an antiquated "communications lockdown" procedure in the final weeks prior to the speech and vote. And while I understand the rationale behind a communications lockdown (I even blogged about it and did interviews to explain it), I feel like it was a big mistake.
"We have to give people a chance to digest the budget in full before we make our final decision."
What frustrates me about this approach is that we voted to approve a budget that was full of significant cuts and tax increases at the exact same moment we gave the public their first look at it. Very few people saw such a difficult budget coming, and many were understandably shocked at the announcements.
One of the most glaring examples of a cut that deserved some discussion before our vote was a 50% drop in arts grants.
I, and many others, have actually been advocating for an increase in these grants and other supports for the arts. We are in a situation where we need to cut costs, but cutting support for one of our core economic strengths at a time when oil investment is weakening is simply a misguided decision.
That just doesn't feel right to me and I know we can do better. If we are to truly "engage" with the public on such an important decision as the budget, then we have to go all the way. We have to give people a chance to digest the document in full before we make our final decision.
One of the hardest parts of voting "no" is that it could send a message that I don't think the City is doing a good job, or that we don't care about the citizens of St. John's.
On the contrary, I am so proud of the leaps and bounds the City of St. John's has already taken with public engagement. We have such an incredible group of people working tirelessly at City Hall to create a culture of engagement. Their efforts will continue to improve the way we do things.
But as someone whose approach to decision making usually involves asking the community "What do you think?" before I make a commit, I couldn't vote to approve a budget that I knew would be painful for many and, worse still, people weren't prepared for.
We have to continue to open up the budget process in ways that effectively incorporate our community’s wide variety of knowledge, experience, and expertise more deeply into how we spend taxpayer dollars. This will lead to better decisions and a more equitable government.
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