Budget Drop 2018

Cllr Lane lead the meeting with the city’s budget for 2018. The council has shifted so significantly that Cllr Lane, once the only wild and crazy guy at the semi-circle, now plays stalwart to the new guard. But, unlike last year, even the disagreements were handled respectfully.

Though councillors still stood in political opposition to their colleagues, no one called anyone names or tried to make themselves look good by undermining anyone else. There was much thanking of staff and of each other and many looking forwards to further discussions. No one read the budget and then threw a hissy fit and slammed their water glass down and left in a huff that they hoped looked like a triumphant mic drop. What a (positive) difference a year makes!

Cllr Lane brought the 294 million dollar 2018 budget forward. He defended the process by summarizing their public engagement through the 3 year budgeting cycle, of which this is the third and final year. He mentioned “5000 touch points” since the 2016 budget, which I don’t want any details on because it stands alone as a phrase of many possibilities.

Since the program review that went on last year to “find efficiencies” did indeed locate some, Lane pointed out that those cost savings were implemented as they were identified, so saving could begin before the next budget cycle. This process resulted in a surplus which will be used to pay down city’s debt which, according to Lane, will save us ~$477,000 over the next 3 years in interest.

Lane says in 2018 the city will put out a “comprehensive citizen satisfaction survey” so the city can better understand what the people want, whether what they want exists, and whether people know that it exists or not. It will also determine new priorities for the 2019-2021 budget cycle.

Lane was also careful to lay out what we may be facing in 2019. Spoiler: it isn’t a party. Or a surprise goat and llama. It is mostly just less money.

Cllrs Lane and Hickman and Hanlon and Korab and Collins and Deputy Mayor O’Leary and Mayor Breen all toed pretty much the same line in support of this budget: It is status quo following on the back of a decent budget last year, and the natural an unsurprising conclusion to an already planned out three year cycle. They belive it is “efficient and effective” and it does not raise property taxes or spending. It is a “Solid picture of sound fiscal management”  while maintaining spending levels (a marginal 0.14% increase over last year.)

O’Leary, who did not support the budget last year due to the increase in metro bus fees, maintained vocal support for a roll back of those fees, but said she would support the budget as it stands.

It is worth quoting Cllr Collins here. He wasn’t the most detailed in his support of the budget, but he was absolutely the most likely to be cast as the old capitalist in a Jimmy Stewart movie who passes for a bad guy without doing anything wrong exactly, except maybe not appreciating the moon enough.

“I will be supportin’. We found 13 million and we didn’t raise taxes. It doesn’t get any better than that. There comes a time you gotta stop engaging and make decisions. We engaged when we were campaigning. We can’t get better than not raising the mil rate.”

Cllr Stapleton also approved the budget without saying much of anything at all. Which is, so far, her way. Sometimes not taking up any time whatsoever with overtly visible work or opinions is a valuable niche in a group.

Cllrs Froude, Burton and Jamieson each stood to oppose the budget. They, like their “pro-“ counterparts, all said basically the same things as each other. If this was a supreme court decision, only two opinions would need be written. The minority opposition focused on lack of active engagement, and did not see the election cycle or the end the budget cycle as reasons why public engagement should have been less robust.

Froude expressed a feeling that the budget was already a “done deal” when the new councillors entered the process.

Froude, Jamieson and Burton, like O’Leary last year, opposed the metro bus fee increase from 2017 and will not support not rolling back those increases. When a full rollback was blocked, they had brought up the possibility of just a partial reduction for kid’s passes but that did not fly with The Whole either.

They brought up the 2.5 million spent in the budget for Mile One (a ~7% increase from 2017). Though Froude was “not opposed to it” he was also “not convinced” and wanted more discussion around the decision.

They were also not convinced, in the wake of what they saw as regressive decisions like not lowering metro bus fares, of the need to spend $147,210 on a new position at city hall for a senior Policy Analyst in the City Manager’s office.

Going Forward 

  • The budget documents specify a panel to “review and advise” on the city’s internal auditor controls which may (or may not) lead to an auditor general instead of the current two person internal audit committee.
  • That big ol’ survey mentioned above
  • Engagement-off 2019: Lane vs Froude and Burton. But not really “vs,” more like collaborating for the public good and greater transparency.
  • Transportation and Metro bus review. Expect a lot more discussion on the fares and the (in)efficiencies and how we could connect to a more regional/wholistic transportation system, but with data and spirited debate.
  • 2019 will be dismal, so maybe just chillax this year and rest up. Cllr Lane “cannot understate the challenges that lie ahead” with the uncertain future of “Oil and Gas prices, a growing (but ageing) population in the city and provincial and federal tax changes” all running full steam into likely “decreasing property values which is the basis for our tax rates.” Lane warns us clearly that “by the next [three year budget] cycle we will have to make difficult choices, set out our strategic priorities, and balance the budget for a challenging fiscal period.” But pot will be legal so that helps, maybe not with the city budget but it should take the edge off.

Miscellaneous Non-budget Highlights:

Vanier student Marlo Greene’s massive and unmitigatedly infectious smile beaming from beside the mayor through the entire recognition of her school winning one of the Golden Broom awards for making the city a cleaner and nicer place. Cat videos are alright, but nothing beats an awesome youth filled with well earned pride.

The brewpub and coffeeshop at 90 Duckworth is a go. All councillors support this small to mid-sized business as an economic engine and a lift to that strip of the downtown. They also all kept referring to the old firehall’s “heritage.” Cllr Burton clarified it isn’t technically a heritage building. Cllr. Jamieson pointed out it is “this Newfoundland modern style that we are beginning to recognize.” Either way, that place is feeling the council love.

Cllr Hanlon did ask, on behalf of the people who bought the house adjacent and turned it from a commercial property (Former BnB then massage parlour) into a private residence, if there was anything the city could do for people who buy next to a space that is zoned residential but subsequently re-zoned.

The answer from staff was basically “no.” And the answer generally is that it is sort of silly for anyone to expect an empty firehall that has never been used residentially, (even if zoned residential for weird “hazy” reasons Cllr Hickman says originated in the ‘70s) and that is on a commercial strip to become an actual residence.

Cllr. Hanlon supports the project, but still sympathized with the homeowners who she guessed wouldn’t have “spent half a million [turning their own property back into a private residence] if they had known.”

There were other items, but most will be touched on again in future council meetings and the budget seems like enough for one day.

I’m off next week, so you will have to go check out the coming meeting on Monday yourself. Then it is the Holiday break, so see you all back here in January. I hope. Probably. Maybe. No way to know the future.

I love this city; I love meetings. Thanks for reading and have a ridiculous and amazing holiday season that you can barely believe you could survive.

If you ever wondered how I came to live here and why I stay (I’m 100% okay with you staying up at night wondering stuff about me), come down to Rocket Bakery tonight at 7pm for free cocoa and me (and other awesome contributors to the Newfoundland Quarterly Canada150 special edition) reading about our home. There will be music (Joanna Barker! High and Lonesome bluegrass!) and inevitable good cheer.