Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, February 28, 2011

The budget’s set! It time again...
to start burning all that taxpayer cash!

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and Unfiltered Opinion
Reprinted from Oshawa Central Newspaper

Bill Longworth, City Hall Columnist
February 28, 2011

As expected, the wily bureaucrats have again outfoxed, outsmarted, and out-manoeuvred city politicians during this annual tax setting charade and come up with another tax increase.

While it’s not the .7% size of increase that’s important, it is the continual tax escalation by politicians, the majority of whom promised tax cuts or freezes during the recent election campaign. The politicians by voting for the increase have sent a clear message to bureaucrats that nothing has changed....Its tax and spend business as usual!

Politicians have told city officials in no uncertain terms that there’s no need to make changes. There’s no need to run a more frugal ship or to look for city hall operational or administrative efficiencies. The city hall spending spree goes full steam ahead. The incremental tax increases will continue to generate fat and waste within the system.

And politicians are being smug and self satisfied about their job overseeing the budget.

Theo Moudakis, Toronto Star

Amy England is patting council on the back for reducing city politician’s expense budgets by $800 each saving a total of $8000 of taxpayer’s dollars out of a budget in excess of $115,000,000, a small gesture, she agrees, but important because council is asking other groups to do with less and so council members should try to work with less as well.

This all makes sense except when we note that Amy also says focussing on reducing politician’s much less transparent Regional Expense budget totalling $280,000 over the term is insignificant compared to some much bigger Regional items to alleviate taxes.

Funny perspective I’d say, suggesting that an over $1/4M expense is not worthwhile focussing on for potential cost savings while taking bows for saving $8000 of taxpayer money.

In patting council’s back over this year’s smaller tax hike, Roger Bouma says, “It’s a great start and we’ll do even better next year!” Roger should know that the tax cuts should start now and not next year....unless we elected a bunch of procrastinators. And besides, taxpayer's current taxes are their immediate concern! And they know that future taxes will balloon on top of tax increases this year! They know the floodgates have to be closed!

Interestingly, one bit of cost saving to make this year’s budget possible was to postpone non-essential hirings to September.

I’d have thought that any council interested in controlling costs would have prohibited non-essential hirings completely. Hiring non-essential staff is pure fat and gravy personified isn’t it? And so city officials and politicians have implemented a directive to postpone hiring extra fat and gravy at city hall until September and then they’ll get back to their regular policy of hiring non-essentials I suppose.

Mayor John Henry wanted to bring a business sense to the operation of city hall. How many businesses are you aware of that hire non-essential staff?

I can see it now---a giant ad in the Financial Post---Oshawa City Hall now hiring highly paid non-essential workers with great lifetime health, pension, job-security, and retirement benefits. Guaranteed annual salary increases. As a non-essential "surplus" worker, you’ll have little work, and certainly no important work to do. Apply today! Send us your address and Mayor John Henry will come out in a Mackie's Moving Van to interview you.

While this year’s .7% tax increase may sound minimal to some readers, I want to remind all that last year’s .9% tax increase produced a $1M surplus in just two accounts that have been publicized with a $650,000 budget surplus to be rolled over to this year and also the $350,000 unbudgeted windfall paid out to defeated and retiring politicians.

And these surpluses are just the tip of the iceberg.

They don’t account for any of the additional needless and wasteful spending, operational inefficiencies and duplications, and a myriad of mismanagement excesses including unnecessary consultant’s reports that produce reports supporting bureaucratic decisions that have already been made.

But these wasteful excesses are borne from an organization that has learned that they can dip further and further into taxpayer pockets for as much cash as they can spend with little regard for costs.

And of course, the .7% increase politicians are boasting about will produce a .7% increase in all of the fat and waste over last year’s surpluses.

This year’s .7% tax increase will boost that $1M surplus of fat generated last year by an additional $805,000 this year for a total fat and waste of $1.8M generated in these two years alone....and of course this is a pattern that repeats each year with incremental tax increases resulting in huge excesses that balloon up city hall excesses, salaries, perks, and privileges. And this "fat" estimate doesn't even include fat to be generated by taxes on new construction.

No business could be sustainable with incremental increases in spending every year. It takes spending limits to force efficiency, productivity, and improvement on any system.

Of course the low increase boasted about this year is a huge lie as some city taxes have simply been shifted from residential taxpayers to those same taxpayers who will now pay greater tax to park downtown or have their elderly parents or grandparents pay a 1200% fee increase in senior’s basic fitness membership for using the city recreational facilities. These are increased taxes pure and simple. And as the saying goes, a rose by any other name is still a rose! And this rose stinks!

These user fee taxes may very well result in lost revenue as fewer users refuse or can ill-afford to pay the increased fees. I, for one, refuse to go downtown because of the parking costs. Why would I when free parking abounds at the Oshawa Centre or any of the other shopping plazas around. There is absolutely no incentive to go downtown and, of course, this results in downtown decay and shuttered businesses. Elimination of downtown parking fees, not increases, is necessary as a first step in making the downtown user friendly

Oshawa has continued tax increases despite the promises of virtually all politicians elected to bring tax cuts or freezes.

Real leadership would have followed Rob Ford’s Toronto example.

Like him or not, he is proving true to his word in cutting out the Toronto Gravy Train.

Ford has not only come in with a zero percent residential tax increase, he has also slashed other taxes like the $60 Toronto vehicle registration tax and stopped utilities like the TTC from raising ticket prices when their budget was cut.

In the case of the TTC, to fund $25M of budget projected shortfall, he directed transit officials to come up with $8M of fat and waste within their budget and for Toronto city hall to come up with $16M of fat and waste within their budget to cover the projected TTC shortfalls. These savings of fat, waste, and inefficiency were easily found.

Ford’s system requires public bureaucrats to squeeze the system for cost savings, operational efficiencies, wiser spending and more care for public money, and he is putting systems and cost restraints in place to insure just that.

As Toronto's Budget Chief stated, “We’re in a hole next year and everybody knows it...and Rule Number One when you’re in a hole is stop digging.” This is a message Oshawa politicians have not learned.

As Toronto City Budget Committee Vice Chair Doug Ford, and brother to mayor Rob stated recently, “There is not a lean and efficient department in Toronto City Hall!” The same is true here in Oshawa. When there are no constraints on spending over the years, those with spending authority have a field day.

With Toronto City Council’s approval of their tax freeze budget, city departments will have to find those efficiencies in order to survive, and their mindset will become much more businesslike as they prioritize in spending on needs and not simply on wants.

Oshawa City Council, on the other hand, have demonstrated by their weak leadership on this budget issue that the Oshawa City Hall gravy train continues and spending motors full steam ahead.

It’s unfortunate for Oshawa city taxpayers that little is being done to increase the efficiencies of program delivery and administration at city hall.

After all John Henry promised to bring a business-like approach to city hall.

And yet Henry’s City Council has announced that they are providing over $8M more of taxpayer money for city bureaucrats to spend next year.

Obviously, Mayor John Henry is no Rob Ford!

So get to it boys! Time to start burning all that extra cash! There’s a bit more where that came from!

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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