"Noah started building the ark before the rains came." I like to think that this is a strong endorsement of effective planning for the future. Budgets are the framework we hang our future plans on, one year at a time, and right now city council and administration are very focused on the 2014 budget.
Pulling a budget together requires a look at historical trends, a review of the previous year, a set of objectives for the upcoming year and a bit of visioning for the long-term plan. We also peek over the fence to see what our neighbours are doing. There isn’t a standard manual or consistency about how other cities handle their budgets or their taxes, but it’s important to see how Brandon compares and analyze the differences. At the end of the day, it all starts with a fundamental question — "In what kind of city do you want to live in five years? And what steps do we need to do this year to build toward that future city we want to live in?"
This column is a look back on how we spent your money in 2013 and my next column will be an overview of what could be accomplished in the 2014 budget.
Undoubtedly, a growing city is a double-edged sword. The good thing is that more homes and businesses mean a bigger tax base, but it also means more roads to plow, garbage cans to pick up and boulevards to mow.
If we are to build capacity for growth into our budget without raising taxes, we must find efficiencies and make tough choices. Simply put, if we add something in, we must kick something out to make room. There are always lots of great ideas for what new things we can be doing, but rarely do we get concrete ideas for how to trim costs. Have some ideas? Email me at email@example.com.
Last year, the city kept the municipal tax increase to just under one per cent. Because of increased efficiencies, a reduction in payroll, and strategic spending, we were able to keep the rate well below inflation and at the same time build in an expanded volume of services and introduce several new initiatives that are part of a growing city.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. In order to make budget capacity for more dwellings (and therefore more garbage bins), we dramatically changed our garbage pickup. That additional capacity also allowed us to add organics into the mix.
The city also had two major city-wide snow-clearing efforts following dramatic severe winter storms. This was at a time when many of our sister cities by policy do not clear residential streets because of budget pressures.
Brandon added $1 million to the infrastructure (potholes, sidewalks and drainage) budget over the last two years.
We’ve added Sunday service for Brandon Transit. We opened a new police services building.
We’ve partnered with the province to repair the Keystone roof, amphitheatre, and concourse area amongs other capital projects.
We brought in WestJet and did an initial upgrade to the airport facility and runways to accommodate them.
We launched several different open-data initiatives as well as a benchmarking system for both internal and external users so that we can now track our progress against more than 200 different metrics.
In 2013, we were able to cut the ribbon on several new affordable housing projects because of strong partnerships with other organizations.
We’ve built a new spray park at the East End Community Centre as well as partnered with parents and the school division for a new playground at Riverheights School.
We’ve added new garden plots in the community gardens, a new dog park for the North Hill area, increased the Youth Activity Centres to three centres and got 18 holes at the golf course open.
The 2013 budget also contained funding for the new YMCA as well as upgrades for the Sportsplex.
In addition to the tangible outputs that you can see driving around the city, we also pulled together strategy documents for Brandon’s future growth, the North Hill and south-end expansions, affordable housing, secondary suite bylaws, brownfield development, derelict properties and design standards.
We also started working with stakeholders around an economic development strategy, distributed the first accommodation tax grants, and got the former Brandon Inn site ready for development.
All of these initiatives have positioned Brandon for even further success.
Whew! And these are just some of the highlights of what "new" projects we were able to take on this year with an increase of one per cent because of being efficient and having focused priority spending.
It would be easy to say that we can just keep up that level of activity for 2014 — just do what we did last year. However, each new year brings new opportunities and challenges. People understand from their own personal budgeting that inflation (utility bills, PST, cost of construction materials) is taking a bigger bite than last year.
Those rising costs are significant, yet at the end of the day must be paid. Brandon residents also understand that respect for collective agreements is the foundation of the relationship that we have with our employees.
As well as moving the starting point further down the road in terms of what we need to run the city, there are also opportunities coming up next year that council will have to evaluate in terms of their benefit to city residents and the economy. Each one will be evaluated in terms of their return on the investment of taxpayers’ dollars.
For budgetary reasons, we could choose to let those opportunities pass by. However, I would hope that we’re neither a city nor a council that is content with the status quo, but rather wants to build on our momentum and success for future prosperity.
So what are some of the new initiatives that council will be debating as part of our 2014 budget process? We’re going to continue to focus on priorities of infrastructure, affordable housing, economic development and quality of life issues. I look forward to sharing the details of these initiatives in next month’s column.
While there will be lots of debate during the coming months regarding the kind of city we’re building and how fast we want to get there, one thing is certain: pulling the plan together for 2014 will require your input. Only you can know what you want us to keep doing, what you want us to stop doing, and what you think we should do differently.
What are your priorities for our city?
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 18, 2013