The contrast between how Victoria and Saanich councils conduct business and develop annual budgets couldn’t be greater.
So, while Saanich continues to struggle with budget demands, ratepayers may want to take notice how the taxpayer is treated as judgment day is set this fall in the form of a municipal election. Down the road in Victoria a draft 2018 budget was developed by the administration and council and presented to ratepayers before the end of 2017.
Budget presentations were made to council in October and November along with a telecast town hall meeting. This was followed by a public survey regarding the budget, and user-friendly documents including a budget summary, a budget at a glance sketch, and even a video “Understanding your city budget.’
The clear message to taxpayers – who pay the bills after all – is that ratepayers are to be informed, consulted and respected during the entire budgeting process. The city hit the road at the beginning of 2018 with a good idea of its 2018 budget short of any final adjustments.
In Saanich the administration met with departments to collect budget information in the fall and early winter. Council’s involvement was to provide broad guidelines, and a request for additional budget reduction scenarios involving a 1 and 1.5 per cent reduction in the tax rate. The latter has yet to be done.
After almost two months into the fiscal year the administration itself released a 112-page preliminary budget on Feb. 21. It’s the first time the public – and council – have laid eyes on the financial challenges ahead, according to Coun. Fred Haynes. The district never bothered with a press release indicating the preliminary budget was released.
Incredibly, a motion by Mayor Richard Atwell and Coun. Karen Harper to provide financial information to the public earlier was defeated 7-2 at a council meeting Feb. 21.
Saanich council will now have three evenings of meetings where the various departments present their budgets and three sessions to discuss grants, and everyone gets to ask questions and get clarifications. Ratepayers have to attend the meetings to address the budget issues and are given five minutes to speak either before the presentation or after the meeting. Council plans to have the budget wrapped up by April 10.
How meaningful, for example, is it to try to have both a presentation and then debate the police, fire and parks budget over one night? To top this off, staff presentations are not necessarily available to the public or council prior to the meeting.
The administration’s proposed consolidated budget recommends spending $288 million or 7.18 per cent more than last year. When sewer, water and garbage increases are factored in, taxpayers are looking at a 4.54 per cent increase. In addition, the police budget is asking for a substantial 4.63 per cent more. (By the way, the average homeowner has seen average increases of 4.48 per cent annually since 2010, far exceeding inflation and population increases).
That’s far more than double inflation of two per cent, and includes major expenditure hikes in finance, fire protection, engineering, parks and recreation and cultural budgets.
Council needs to be reminded that their employers, the taxpayers, have a right to timely, complete, comprehensive and understandable financial information.
Before almost $300 million is spent on their behalf, tax-fatigued voters in Saanich must demand nothing less than more respect.
Bruce and Laurie Kennedy are with the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria.