Fall, the season of harvest and red and gold leaves; the season of turkey and pumpkin pies. And yes, Fall is also "budget season" at city hall. Fall seems to have snuck up on us and yet it seems that there are those just as anxious as council to get started on the annual fall tradition of the Brandon budget debate. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised; stores are always trying to rush the season as well, to coax a few more dollars into the till. Even though we have about 18 weeks ahead of us before council will be making its final decision, my own personal fan club members have already started their sabre rattling. I thought I’d use this column to bring you up to date on what has happened so far and the process over the next few months — to try and inject a bit of fact into the colourful hyperbole that is already swirling.
Council and city administration have been working since early summer on getting a handle on understanding the 2013 budget pressures. It’s never an easy process to balance the many different aspects of city responsibility and to find "the right number" that residents feel is a reasonable and affordable investment in the city. I believe that the budget and resultant property taxes need to be as much about a good business decision as it is a good political decision. A classic example is what happens to the state of our infrastructure when we don’t continue to fund it appropriately.
So, what are some of the issues that will drive the discussion in the weeks ahead? Obviously, salaries are the first thing we look at. A city delivers services and approximately one-half of the city’s budget is for the salaries of those persons who deliver those services. Of the one-half of the city budget that goes towards salaries, the protective services branch accounts for approximately one-half of that amount. We have two contracts open and currently being negotiated — E-911/police dispatch and fire. As well, the negotiation process will begin with police this fall for a new collective agreement as the current one expires Dec. 31. Settlements will have a profound impact on the budget. Protective services (emergency services) cannot go on strike; so if we cannot reach a settlement at the negotiating table, the contract(s) will be settled by an independent arbitrator and both sides will live with the decision. Many years ago, benchmark comparator communities were imbedded into the contracts and their local contracts will influence the final Brandon settlement.
Another significant pressure in our 2013 budget will be the ongoing struggle with infrastructure. We added half a million dollars to the budget last year to streets and roads. That allowed us to fill more potholes and repair more curbs and sidewalks, and resurface more roads. But everyone in Brandon knows that it wasn’t enough, and those short-term fixes are just a drop in the bucket when you consider the major road and bridge rebuilds we also need. Also on our infrastructure to-do list are the significant investments for new infrastructure in the North Hill/ Black Farm project and ongoing drainage concerns.
Third on our list is growth. On council’s agenda are the issues associated with our current growth — especially housing shortages and affordability. Over the past two years we’ve been an active funding partner donating either land or grants for projects. We’ve also been a facilitator, ensuring that zoning and other regulatory processes run smoothly. And we’ve been a promoter, putting the plans in place to shape future development. But it’s not enough. We need to do more. The level and scope of that investment will be an important part of council’s discussions over the next few months.
Also top of mind for Council is future growth. What do we need to invest in so that we can attract more opportunities? We’re ready with the airport upgrades should West Jet call. We know we need to add more resources to the planning department in order to process more permits faster, which drives revenue for the city. But we also have quality of life issues such as parks and recreation, culture and heritage. This summer I talked with a major employer considering locating in Brandon and he wanted to know about schools and crime, not tax incentives. Because his number one major business concern was recruiting employees and those questions would be at the top of their lists.
Adding to the complexities is the fact that many of the various priorities and projects are inter-related. For example, growth, infrastructure, the Black Farm, and housing are linked and difficult to separate.
When you’re dealing with limited, finite resources; one of the harsh truths is that it’s always about priorities and consequences. You can’t do it all and for every decision we make on an investment in the city, there is a corresponding decision not to go ahead with a project. When I’m out and about chatting with folks, I frequently hear about "more" and rarely options for "less" (unless its taxes).
Council is shouldering its responsibilities for the budget and is working hard to do the best job we can. However, I have two things to ask of you- to be informed and to participate. We cannot do the job we need to do without your help, your input and your guidance. So please attend the community meetings that we will be hosting in the wards in October and November and the city hall townhall forum. Also, feel free to contact either myself or other members of council, or senior administration directly.
In the weeks and months ahead, you’re going to be hearing a lot about city priorities and pressures. The first public look at the 2013 budget will be mid-November and, (fair warning now), it will be the "all-in budget" that council will then begin to pare down. A pared down budget will then be brought forward for community consultation in December to ensure that it reflects your priorities for Brandon. You will have lots of opportunities for input and information. These community budget discussions are critically important.
Part of your responsibility as a participant is also to make sure that you are informed and that the information is accurate. If it’s not coming out of city hall, either through a council meeting or debate, or through coverage by professional reporters in the media; then take what you hear with a grain of salt. There are all kinds of reasons why some people want to get things stirred up, or who believe that the only right opinion is a loud one.
At the end of the day, our city’s budget and the long term implications of those decisions are too important to play games with. There isn’t anyone sitting at the council table that doesn’t have the best interests of the city at heart. Your council is a very representative blend of a variety of community perspectives and interests. It will be a vocal, heated, respectful, balanced, and informed discussion around our council table, and one that I hope is reflected in the community.
We are a rapidly growing city undergoing dramatic change and your council is working hard to make sure that together we build a city that our children and their families will call home.
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 22, 2012