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A budget hidden in plain sight

A column from Robert Thomas that looks at the city's budget process
Moose Jaw City Hall
Moose Jaw City Hall (Shutterstock)

It is designed ostensibly to allow the 2020 Budget - both Operating and Capital - to be finalized earlier than usual to allow the City to get tenders out early and take advantage of lower rates from contractors more likely to submit lower bids. A potential economic win for the taxpayers but for some there is something very nefarious or is it notorious going on with the 2020 Budget.

Yes the rumours and the conspiracies - whether true or not - are starting to circulate throughout the community and it has a lot of long-time Council watchers asking exactly what is going on with the 2020 Budget? 

Some are even saying it is a move by a hidden power within City Hall to not only eliminate controversy which surrounds civic budgets but also write out the critics and a good portion of the politics in 2020 which is after all an election year.

But is such a thing possible? 

Has some great evil force taken over the budget process for 2020 and made it so the ordinary resident of Moose Jaw has more access but in the end a lot less say in the way your hard earned tax dollars are spent? 

Is it all part of some contrived plan to make not only the budget come out sooner but also lacking in the critical second look most in the community demand? 
Has transparency been used to subvert accountability as some of the critics in the community are now saying? Or is it all just part of some great unfounded conspiracy theory floating around out in the community?

To get an understanding of it all, one needs to take a good look at the entire budget process this year and how structurally it differs from other years. Once you understand that then you need to ask the question ‘does the streamlined budget process lend itself to the open and accountable system most of those elected promised just over three years ago?’

For those who are unfamiliar with how Moose Jaw set its budget in years prior, it was a multi-step system. 

First Administration draws up all of their needs and then they would submit preliminary budgets at a regular meeting of Council. 

From these preliminary budgets - both Operating and Capital - Council would then move to Budget Committee where they would go through the two budgets in what was akin to a fine tooth comb approach. Often times Budget Committee would seemingly go through the budgets line by line. It was slow and methodical and for many people who have attended, well let us just say - really boring.

Budget Committee was a less formal atmosphere than what a regular Council meeting is and because a seconder is not needed, any member of the committee could easily ask for discussion on any expenditure. It may have been slow and tedious but it could help to not only get a better understanding about what exactly was being spent and what for but it also could lead to changes as in cuts.

It is not the greatest thing you may want to hear as a member of Administration that something small and routine is not only being questioned but at the same time it may end up not only just being scrutinized but cut. 

If it was not cut by Budget Committee there was a second opportunity to make changes when it came to a regular meeting of Council where before the television cameras and broadcast on Shaw Cable 10 the issue may come up once again.

This year though, there is no Budget Committee. That second sober thought and fine tooth more informal look at the budget is gone. Rather, things are being handled straightforward and up front in a Council meeting.

Sound confused? 

In all of this, you are not the only one confused. Even Council has been a little bit confused with some questioning throughout the budget process exactly what is happening and what exactly is the process. It has come up now twice at the special meetings of Council (which are scheduled) to handle the budget.

At one of the special meetings of Council, Councillor Scott McMann questioned the entire process and if Council was voting on something final or not. Or could Council tentatively vote in favour of something and then if they so choose to deal with it later to see exactly how it all fit into the entire budget. If Council approved a certain expenditure, exactly how much did that add to the projected tax increase and could Council later go back and vote not to have that measure included?
The answer given is that a vote on the budget measure by Council was a final vote on the measure - once voted on, it was in - only by tabling it, could Council reconsider how it all fit into the overall budget. 

There was no time left to reconsider as the two step Budget Committee and final Council approval approach whether or not it could be left in or not. 

Councillor McMann was not the only member of Council to ask questions about the budget process and exactly what each measure would have on the overall tax increase.

Councillor Dawn Luhning made a constructive criticism to Administration to include a single sheet of paper in addition to the budget documents to show exactly how each initiative proposed would affect the bottom line and how much of a tax increase to expect.

At another meeting, there was a bit of confusion by Committee of the Whole chair Councillor Chris Warren as to the exact procedure and the fact that they were in a Council meeting and not Budget Committee. 

Yes, for those of you who watch Council on a regular basis and caught the meeting on the City of Moose Jaw YouTube channel, you may have noticed the procedure has been a bit non-traditional. It is a little bit difficult at times determining who seconded items for discussion - unnecessary in Budget Committee. And unlike a regular Council meeting and Committee of the Whole, nobody is standing when they are addressing a Council meeting. It all looks like a hybrid between a Council and a Budget Committee meeting at times.

Then when the questions about the format were being asked, Councillor Heather Eby said she distinctly remembered it was discussed in the past and this was the format. This got me thinking and people can correct me if I am wrong but I personally do not recall any meeting I watched or attended this being said. So if it was not said and more or less agreed to in a public meeting, where else could it have been? The only answer would be those in-camera and no minutes taken Strategic Planning Sessions. 

So could it be the format on how the City spends your hard earned tax dollars was actually decided behind closed doors? If so, is this not something which could have or rather should have been discussed and decided in public? 

Should not a policy or is it a procedure change be discussed and decided in public? Especially now that by all appearances, many budget items are not being for many I have spoken to at least be adequately scrutinized? 

For instance, take a look at the third party budget submissions, especially two of them.

One is from Tourism Moose Jaw where executive director Jacki L’Heureux made a presentation with a request for City funding. It is something done standard and routine. 

The thing is, after her presentation, Councillor Brian Swanson asked about the financials provided to Council and how there was something seriously wrong with what was presented. Under questioning, L’Heureux admitted somehow Council had been provided with incorrect figures and she would provide them later. For those of you who are unaware, Tourism Moose Jaw receives a fee for service from the City and as such, should they not at least be looked at when it comes to all of this? Now I am not saying there is anything notorious going on there but I know I never received those documents when they were forwarded later. 

The second deals with the Moose Jaw and District Seniors, who are seeking $50,000 from the City and likewise the Cosmo Senior Citizens Centre who are asking for same and equal treatment. 

At the third party presentations, Talon Regent representing Moose Jaw and District Seniors did not provide a copy of his presentation to Council; beforehand it was requested by Council but the media never received it. The Cosmo Senior Citizens Centre though did provide theirs, although they admitted they were seniors and did it old school on paper and were not using PowerPoint.

And, no, I am not inferring anything nefarious is going on but isn’t the media and the general public supposed to hold Council’s decisions to fund any group accountable?... but without documents how do you do it?

Now are the budget proceedings available to watch and review?

Yes they are. 

The City tried to get Shaw Communications to televise them but unfortunately, because it would cost Shaw to bring in staff to produce, they declined. 

To make it accessible to the general public, the City broadcast the proceedings live on their YouTube page. It does make the entire budget procedure accessible but only if you have access to a computer and know how to use it. Something which may leave the less tech-savy people in the community lost when it comes to what Council has finally decided and most importantly why?

So into this budget which is streamlined and hidden from the regular Shaw Cable 10 viewing audience, you had Councillor Swanson asking how did the Coteau Street Bridge come to rank so high in priority in this year’s Capital Budget when there isn’t enough money to go around? It does leave more than a few people thinking as I have spoken to ask about the entire budget process. 

Some are suggesting it is all political and they point to Mayor Fraser Tolmie’s statement from the last special Council meeting where he said he is trying to forge a united team and there is at least one player who does not want to join. It is something to remember in light of the loss of the Canadian Protein Innovation pea protein plant with the media silenced and a 6 - 1 vote.

To help rectify it all at a Monday evening’s regular Council meeting, Councillor Swanson was set to make a motion to have the final decision on the 2020 Budget decided at a regularly televised meeting.  The thing is, will it happen or is the Budget process this year to remain hidden in plain sight?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was written while the budget was still being deliberated.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.  

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