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Some councillors concerned about new method for discussing budget

The new process sees council discuss the 2020 budget during special meetings and approve recommendations piecemeal, which prevents the budget from being approved in a regular meeting and potentially shuts down discussion
Moose Jaw City Hall
Moose Jaw City Hall (Shutterstock)

Some city councillors are concerned about how the 2020 budget discussion process has being structured compared to previous years, with a few worried they’ll have only one opportunity to discuss proposed projects.

Past practice for budget discussions saw several meetings held and the final operating and capital budgets adopted at a regular meeting council. This year, however, to ensure everything is passed before December, city administration put forward a budget policy that schedules special meetings, which negates a final adoption of the budgets at a regular meeting.

Under the new process, each proposed resolution is voted on and comes into effect on an incremental basis. The plan is to finish the budget at the special meeting of Council on Wednesday, Dec. 11, which could limit further debate on the budget.

The budget discussions are also not held on council evenings, which means Shaw Cable will not broadcast the proceedings. City hall had to scramble to address this issue by live-streaming the meetings on its YouTube account.

Coun. Scott McMann raised the issue of why the process had changed this year for approving and discussing motions.

This new process was modelled after how the City of Regina handles its budget conversations, explained finance director Brian Acker. If council is concerned about the new method, it could table all the motions until the end and then put them back on the table for finalization. (This is the method council decided to pursue).  

“Somehow to me, we sort of glossed through the big book (of operating and capital budgets) and we’re into the things we’re adding on,” said McMann. “We don’t have an idea of where we’ll end up.”

Coun. Brian Swanson favoured passing the budget before January but opposed the new method of budget deliberations since he was skeptical of its effectiveness. He thought how the budget was being presented was similar to omnibus bills presented in Parliament; the overall budget document is 778 pages long.

“It is absolutely absurd that we would be in a position where we would vote on this without knowing how it impacts the final budget,” he continued.

To move from budget committee meetings to special meetings is something that “slipped by” council, which is why he presented a notice of motion that the budget adoption happens at a televised regular meeting. Swanson also didn’t like that a recommendation could be voted on and then council had no ability to go back and discuss it before finalization.

City administration didn’t slip this by anyone since council was told this was the new way budget talks would happen, pointed out Coun. Heather Eby, adding she even asked how the new process would work.

The argument about where council is now is a moot point, but it is a valid concern about holding these special meetings, said Coun. Dawn Luhning. This budget is supposed to be a status quo budget; council had asked for nothing major to be added while any new items should be added to the end of the discussions. However, there was no official list of those new items.

It didn’t make sense to her to approve motions without knowing how much they might add to an overall tax increase. Luhning had hoped to see a summary page with the amounts of each request and the percentage increase they represented.

“Then I know which I want to approve or not approve … . I’ll know where we’re at,” she added. “I think that’s all that’s missing. It will work here for sure. We just need one more piece of the puzzle.”

Acker replied that city administration could present such a summary document at the next special meeting.

The next special budget meeting is Dec. 4.