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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A new look for the city budget

On January 29th from 10:00 a.m. till 1 p.m. you'll have an opportunity to talk to budget staff and councillors at four city malls (Argyle, Masonville, White Oaks and Westmount) about the 2011 budget. The following week, Wednesday, February 2 starting at 4:00 p.m. the public is also invited to make submissions on the budget to council at a public participation meeting in Council Chambers.

As it stands, the average tax increase in the proposed budget is $29. Council is looking to bring that down to zero. What would you be willing to cut? What do you say "hands off" to?

This year's budget presentation will make it a bit easier to see where the money goes.

For my last two years on city council, I served on the Services Review Committee the mandate of which was to review all the services provided by the city to its residents in preparation for a new way of approaching the budgeting process.

When I first came on the scene at the end of 2006, the budget was presented by departments-- Planning Department, Community Services, Engineering and Environmental Services, etc. Because any bureaucracy is to some extent a product of its management and history, it is often difficult to ascertain the connection between the departments and the services that may be provided. And some services rely on the contributions of more than one department, making it hard to figure out where the money is going, what the actual costs of the service are, and how to get a better bang for the buck. This is confusing both for councillors trying to act in the best interests of the taxpayer and for residents in trying to figure out what they are getting for their tax dollars.

As a result of the work of the committee, London is the first municipality in Ontario to take a service approach to producing a budget although other cities are well on their way to doing likewise. In the future, this will make it much easier to make comparisons across jurisdictions and allow the city to determine what the best practices are. It also makes it easier to determine whether we are getting value for our dollars as well as which services we may want to reduce or discontinue and which need to be enhanced.

Although sources of revenue may vary, ultimately it all comes from the taxpayer whether it is in the form of federal or provincial taxes through grants or through user fees or fines. But most of it comes from the tax levy on property. While the province determines how much each property owner or tenant will be assessed at by establishing the value of the property in question, the city determines the overall budgetary needs. The result is the tax levy.

For the coming year, the operating budget, the part that provides ongoing services, will require about $464.4 million from property taxes. This takes into account the $2.6M in savings resulting from modest wage settlements with inside and ouside workers and continuing wage freezes for managers and other nonunionized workers as well as $1.8M saved by delaying the filling of vacant positions.

The proposed budget still requires a 1.7 percent increase or about $8M and does not account for increases that wage settlements with police may require. Higher than projected assessment growth may also help a bit but at some point assessment growth will require service growth, especially when growth is primarily in outlying areas. This is particularly evident in the new library in Stoney Creek that needs to be heated and staffed and is the main reason that the library has requested an increase of 4.3%.

 So this is how the city proposes to spend almost half a billion dollars.

The following provides a bit more detail on the services included in each area:

  • Culture: the London Public Library system, Centennial Hall, Museum London, and grants to the arts and heritage.
  • Economic prosperity: London Convention Centre, Tourism London, London Economic Development Corporation.
  • Environmental Services: Conservation Authorities, Garbage collection, recycling, composting.
  • Parks and Recreation: Parks and recreation facilities maintenance and recreational programs.
  • Planning and Development: Building controls, development approvals, city planning and research.
  • Protective Services: Police, Fire, By-law enforcement, Animal Care and Control.
  • Social and Health Services: Housing, Public Health, Ambulance, Long Term Care, Social Services.
  • Transportation Services: London Transit, Roads maintenance, Street lighting, Traffic signals, Parking.
  • Corporate, Operational and Council Services: Corporate services, Financial management, Legal services, Elections, Planning and Administration, Human Resources.
A service approach makes the whole budget more accessible. You can review it yourself on the city website by clicking here. You'll have a chance to weigh in on what you think we need more or less of. Reviewing the budget in advance means you'll be able to do that knowledgeably.

I'm proud of the work that staff and the Service Review Committee did to make the budget more comprehensible. It won't make the impact of cuts any less difficult, but it will  make those impacts a whole lot easier to identify.

1 comment:

Sandy Levin said...

Gina, a good portion of the capital budget comes from Development Charges. These are fees to pay for at least part of growth which are paid directly by builders when they take out building permits. Whether or not they pass these costs along to property buyers or if they list them in the price is up to the builder. In the current capital budget it's $24.6 million or about 25% of the city's capital budget. The city also establishes the tax ratios and tax rates which are applied to the value of the property. In London, the rates for industrial are lower than other manufacturing cities such as Windsor, which is one reason why residential taxes are higher here.