By now, everyone who is interested in what goes on at city council is aware that another tied vote on Tuesday on setting the budget targets at zero means that no decision was made. Sudden Illness caused Councillor Stephen Orser to leave the chambers immediately after the dinner break, so his previous appeal to wait for Councillor VanMeerbergen to be present to avoid another tied vote was in vain. VanMeerbergen was there, but Full-time Orser was not. It will be another month before they have an opportunity to give it another go.
In all likelihood, most of them will remember their speeches, for or against, at that time; having already delivered them twice almost verbatim, there should not be much additional memory work involved.
One theme that definitely came forward a second time was the matter of the work of the Services Review Committee which has been elevated to the status of a standing committee and is being renamed the pre-budget committee.
Chaired by Nancy Branscombe since its inception in 2008, the committee was formed to find organizational and operational efficiencies at city hall. Councillors were finding the approach of simply adding across the board increases in the budgets of various departments an unsatisfactory way of getting the best value for the taxpayers’ dollar. Thus was instituted the Services Review Committee which was to review all services provided by the city, to determine what was working and what not, to compare practices to that of other municipalities, and even take a service to zero and build from that for a few areas each year.
I served on that committee for two years and it was a lot of work and a lot of long meetings. It was also a large committee, the thinking being that the only way to make recommendations from it go forward, you would want a lot of councillors already committed to the process and the decisions. Besides, being on the committee was quite an education in itself; you got to know about services that you may never have given any thought to and met a lot of staff members that you would normally not run into.
Because it was a lot of work and required a lot of meeting time, it was sometimes hard to get a quorum and there were times when a lot of highly paid staff were sitting around and cooling their heels while the committee was desperately calling around trying to find another body. There was a significant number of members who wanted to be on the committee, but not necessarily attend the meetings or read the agenda.
But there were the stalwarts: Branscombe, Baechler, Bryant, Eagle, Usher and myself. And even when the new council was elected, Branscombe, Baechler, Bryant, and Usher soldiered on and others joined them. But the problems of nonattendance continued.
Not surprisingly, a certain amount of resentment builds up when people are working hard trying to get the job done and then get held up by others who frequently seem to have difficulty showing up or on time. And then, if their worked is summarily dismissed by others who can’t be bothered to participate, people can get a little testy.
We had intimations of that at the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee the previous evening. Both Branscombe and Baechler had indicated that they were tired of doing the heavy-lifting only to have all their work undone by those who hadn’t even read their agendas.
At council, Branscombe laid down her cards. She has been chairing the committee for four years now, working to whittle down the budget without damaging core services, prepared to make cuts that were necessary. But last year, she had asked for councillors who wanted a zero tax increase to bring forward a list of things they were willing to cut, but she had received no response from them. Worse, they overturned committee recommendations, made decisions behind closed doors, took money earmarked for the reserves, and then dealt with the shortfall by covering it through the surplus.
It was the last straw, using one-time money to cover ongoing expenses. It made budgeting impossible. She wasn’t going through that again. Zero increase she could handle but you had to face up to the fact that the results wouldn’t be pretty. “We can do this,” she conceded, “but we have to be honest about what that means.” She wouldn’t be serving on the Services Review Committee if it meant using reserves to get to zero.