As you read this article, council is hard at work craftingthe 2014 budget.
We spent yesterday, dealing with concerns regarding the level of spending inprotective services, infrastructure, support services including reserve allocations, recreation, culture, parks, youth, transit, sanitation, environment, economic development, downtown renewal and affordable housing.
Today, we are taking all the information gleaned from the past several months of in-depth budget prep, and are rolling up our sleeves to take on the task of funding the blueprint for 2014.
Makinga budget is a lot like building a house — there are a host ofsimilarities.
For most people, deciding which house to build or buy will be one of the most important decisions they ever make.
Before we even look at house plans or locations, we need to get family harmony on whether we’re planning on living in the house for a while or whether it’s going to be a quick flip for resale.
We need to have that understanding because that will help us decide on building for today or building for tomorrow. If I’ve got a long-term investment point of view and "hubby" has a resale point of view, we’re not going to agree on many of the significant aspects of our new house.
One of those areas that we need consensus on is deciding how many bedrooms we should build. We know we need one, but do we build more? The city is always wrestling with the idea of growth — and our imaginary family needs to decide whether it’s building for the future and how big that future might be, or whether we’re only going to spend our money on current needs.
In addition to bedrooms, there is another room in the house that is often a focal point for different visions. Anyone who has built a house understands the kitchen dynamic from the point of view of the cook vs. the rest of the family. Council’s debate around the level of programs and services that are not used by everyone (think recreation or culture) can sometimes sounds like the debate about the cook’s "need" vs. "want" list of appliances, the number of cupboards, or whether there is a window over the sink. And a happy cook doesn’t necessarily cook better, but…
We also might want to take other family members into consideration when we’re building this house. Where will the kids play?Do we need to be closer to schools? Location affects the price of the house, but are we prepared to pay a bit more just to make the kids happy?
Building a house is like building a city.
If we’re planning to live in the house for a good longwhile,we’d better plan onaccessibility, remembering what the house will need to look like when we’re old and grey.
If we’re only living in the house for a few years, you canget by without making too many of these kinds of adjustments to the house plans.
Even if we’re building for resale andyoung without a family, we probably should include some features so that we can attract the largest pool of prospective buyers.The Bank of Canada is saying that by 2031, one in four Canadians will be over 65, and that’s a big number of potential buyers not to take into consideration.
There are also lots of decisions to be made around the curb appeal for the house that we’re building.
Just like there is around the curb appeal of a town.
Do we want a deck? How big a deck? Will we use it? Will it help with resale? Decks and backyard amenities are like Brandon’s parks and boulevards, and it’s similar to deciding about whether we’re going to landscape the front yard or just put down some grass seed. Why would we do anything more than that if we’re trying to keep the cost of the new house as low as possible? I think we can all understand the value of a well-kept yard in our own neighbourhoods, and our new house isn’t any different.
Brandon has some beautiful greenspaces and parks that are important for the enjoyment of living in our city. They enhance our city’s "curb appeal" for those looking to relocate to the city, or maybe just put down some roots in a new neighbourhood.
We know that we need a roof, walls, doors, and windows; but the quality, style, and energy efficiency of those items will definitely depend on whether we’re building the house to live in long term.
The City of Brandon’s emergency services are a bit like the conversation we have around insurance for our pretend house. How much do we want to pay for something that we hope we never use? What level of risk are we prepared to take for not having the right level of coverage should tragedy strike?
In the next few hours, council will make a lot of tough decisions about the 2014 budget.
Like builders, we will weigh the must-haves against the nice-to-haves and what we can afford. We will shoparound for the best price. Remembering that the lowest price is not necessarily the best price, long term.
We will make some tough decisions, perhaps leaving those nice-to-haves to a future date.If that’s the case, we should startputting a little something away to help pay for it later.
We need not to bepenny wise but pound foolish, especially regarding the must-haves like infrastructure.
Finally, I hope that collectively we decideto build for the long term. Budget decisions around growth, economic development, and youth are all items that we can postpone or underfund in the short term, but only at our peril over the long haul.
At the end of the day, we need to balance the kind of citywe want to live in vs. the kind of citywe can afford. Life would be both simplerif those two things were always thesame!Budgets are never easy, but you can rest assured that we will be wrestling with the tough issues to build Brandon intothe best city it can be.
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly.