Included in the draft budget that was presented to council last week is a list of adds and cuts. These are the items that have been identified as up for grabs as council wrestles its way to a zero tax increase.
There are 34 of these items; unfortunately, most of them would result in more spending, not less.
It is the job of the Service Review Committee to evaluate the various proposals and determine whether or not they should be kept on the list for further discussion by the council at budget time. At their meeting this week they considered a few of them. Only one fell by the wayside.
The one that didn’t make it was a request by the Big Brothers and Big Sisters for core funding of $50,000 per year to hire an additional staff member which would allow for them to reduce their waiting list of 247 by 41 youngsters.
Despite general agreement that the organization provides a valuable service to the city, it failed to get support from enough members of the committee to keep it on the “parked” list. That’s not to say that it can’t be resurrected when the whole council considers the budget.
Not all the members of the committee were present for meeting. Chair Nancy Branscombe, along with members Joni Baechler, Harold Usher, Paul Hubert and Mayor Fontana waited for ten minutes until Denise Brown and Dale Henderson arrived to make it a quorum. More than an hour later, Joe Swan joined them. Unable to attend were members Judy Bryant, Matt Brown and Bud Polhill.
The request by ReForest London met with better success. The pitch by executive director Julie Ryan was for $100,000 for making trees more affordable for individuals to plant as part of the 1 million trees challenge. The average cost of tree planting in the city is $250 per tree (e.g. boulevard trees) which includes the cost of the tree as well as the planting. Having recently had a tree planted in my backyard, I can attest to the cost. The price of the trees themselves is high, especially since the province got out of the business of growing trees. Nursery trees from private business are expensive.
But trees can save the city a lot of money; each mature tree has an economic value of $162,000, information that Harold Usher found hard to believe. But when one evaluates it role in storm water management, air purification, temperature moderation and aesthetic value, this estimate makes a lot of sense. As Baechler pointed out, when you take down a mature beech tree you have to plant 2,700 saplings such as those planted on boulevards, to compensate for that loss.
Several committee members wondered about leveraging. Was there a way to ensure that the funds put in by the city would be matched or exceeded by individuals and corporations?
Ryan pointed out that it is the volunteer time and energy that is being leveraged. To date, most of the planting has been on public property. Now, the challenge is to get planting on private property. That means making the trees affordable enough that they will be purchased. The labour will be provided by volunteers, including the owners of the property. It’s the only way to ensure that 1 million trees will be planted over the next ten years.
Baechler recommended considering the request along with others dealing with urban forestry; this was unanimously supported by the committee.
Then came the matter of enhanced maintenance for the Veteran’s Memorial Parkway (VMP).
This issue arose time and again when I was on council. Ever since the Airport Road was renamed, its maintenance has been a source of contention in the community, with many veterans and their families expecting that the grass will be neatly and frequently cut, that there will smartly trimmed, contained plantings, and that any litter and debris will be promptly removed. It's a costly endeavour on a lengthy stretch of highway more suited to naturalization than manicuring. Staff did not recommend going this route at a time of financial restraints.
But the committee was clearly nervous about any possibility that veterans would feel disrespected by not going the extra mile. It’s an ongoing dilemma. Harold Usher voiced what many of us have felt in those circumstances, that he was being blackmailed into approving the additional costs by fears of what veterans would think. I recall all too well the response that I received when I suggested that we take advantage of volunteer offers to help maintain the VMP. I argued that getting the community involved would show greater respect, rather than less, and be educational to boot. Instead, Board of Control opted for more spending.
Baechler was reluctant to let this one go. She wondered what was happening with the partnership with Landscape Ontario and the committee that had been formed to deal with this issue. The committee has been doing all it can, Ross Fair, executive director of Community Services responded, but it is hard to bridge the gap between expectations and the cost of meeting them. It’s a tough area to maintain, really labour intensive. Nevertheless, Baechler moved that the $150,000 item be added to the “parked” list and that all the partner—Landscape Ontario, the city and volunteers—be brought to the table. She thought that some new technologies and products, she didn’t want to say pesticides, could be employed to deal with invasive species.
Some thought that perhaps the cost estimates had been inflated. Fair assured them they were not. "That’s the cost of bringing in another crew," he said.
However, the item was added to the “parked” list which was getting longer and longer. At some point, stuff will need to be moved.
Also added to the parked list was the request of additional money for Services Review itself. The request had been for $300,000 although it was acknowledged by the proponent that it was unlikely, given that the money would not become available until the spring, that all of it would be spent. The idea was to hire an outside consultant to evaluate the information gleaned to date and identify efficiencies and cost-savings opportunities. To date, not all that much has been identified through the internal process. This is hardly surprising since those who are part of the current structure are likely to be reluctant to rock the boat.
There followed a broad ranging discussion about service review, audit, and zero-based budgets. Director of Business Planning, Sharon Houde, pointed out that the internal Service Review had been very beneficial for training managers across the system, encouraging collaboration, and providing a coaching role for managers. But fresh eyes will be needed to identify greater opportunities for cost savings changes. She was recommending the equivalent of a pilot project in which a zero-based budget could be applied to a limited area. The money would be a one-time expense that would come out of savings from delayed management hiring.
Dale Henderson was not impressed. He wanted to create an new process which included three ideas: make someone responsible for finding a specific amount of savings, say 1%; have a suggestion box for savings and give rewards for good suggestions; see what is happening in other communities and implement their solutions. He was advised that cost savings have to be identified by reason of the targets set by council which do not allow for cost of living increases; that the suggestion box approach was not successful in the past but Human Resources is planning to introduce a new version since this was already suggested earlier; and that staff constantly monitor what is happening elsewhere, in fact, we are frequently emulated by other municipalities. Recently the city was nominated for an award for its services review approach.
Henderson was not appeased. All he hears about are budgets but he has not seen any savings. He doesn’t consider coming in under a low target as savings. “You have to go further,” he insisted.
Branscombe reminded him that council set the targets; if you want more savings, lower the targets.
Fontana supported Henderson’s observations. He wants big cuts which take "intestinal fortitude". He wants a guarantee of how much will be saved. He has some ideas which he will discuss later. In the meantime, $100,000 was okayed for Services Review, with Henderson the lone vote in opposition.
Stay tuned. The big ideas are coming.