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 21, 2011

It’s Tax Time Again....
Get Ready For Your Annual Tax Hit!

“Eye on City Hall”

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

Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
February 21, 2011

Doesn’t matter that Oshawa is the highest taxed place in the GTA.

Doesn’t matter that we had a tax revolt in the city just prior to the last election and so voters turfed 64% of the past council out of office.

Doesn’t matter that virtually all those elected were calling for tax cuts, tax freezes, or holds on tax increases.

So hold your hats! Looks like we’re gonna be hit with another tax shot that’s gonna blow your wallet to smithereens.

It’s the season of political doublespeak and city staff and council members are priming you for a 1.4% tax increase on the proposed 2011 city budget.

During the election campaign, John Henry pledged financial accountability to taxpayers. He promised to go over the budget with a fine tooth comb with a process he called zero based budgeting whereby all line items would be generated from the ground up. “We’d start with zero dollars and build up the budget line by line justifying every expenditure along the way,” he said. With that promise we’d be expecting a change in the process, wouldn’t we?

Any change in the process though would have had to result from direction from council. But there was no motion! There was no discussion! There was no intent on Henry’s part to change the budget process! All of that gobbledygook about a new budget process was just there to fool the people and win votes. It was all a big lie! The only grand scheme Henry announced were two night time public meetings as opposed to daytime public meetings. Henry’s election promises to impose a new system were quickly forgotten upon his election....and by this he has broken the public trust in the biggest issue facing voters in the recent election.

The night time budget meetings were poorly attended by the public with only one person attending the first of the two meetings. Interested ratepayers know that even forensic accountants among the public would not be any more successful in wading through all of the ill defined budget lines than the politicians in comprehending the bureaucrat’s spending wish lists, BS, and ill defined budget lines so cleverly crafted so as to hide any disclosure they want from prying eyes and questioning minds.

Guess that’s why only one member of the public attended the first meeting...voters know it’s only a charade...and they don’t want to be used!

In any case, I pointed out during the election campaign that political oversight of the budget with the system Henry proposed would be an impossible task as bureaucrats have all of the detailed knowledge about the operations of city hall and hold all the trump cards in the budget battles. In the classic contest between bureaucrats and politicians, bureaucrats always win.

It’s like child’s play for bureaucrats to play pussy cat with weak politicians hiding all of their wish lists in mountains of numbers which are often rounded up in multiples of $5000 or $10,000 to provide plenty of space to hide the fat.

The budget hides so much excess fat to cover a myriad of unbudgeted items like huge consultant’s fees to supplement the handsomely paid but apparently inept city staff, and the almost $1/2M combined city/regional retiring allowances for defeated Oshawa politicians. Despite all of these unbudgeted costs, last year's .9% tax increase still generated a $650,000 surplus.

Excuses are always given for budget increases and this year it is expiring labour contracts and increased worker health insurance premiums, etc., but this is not new. There are always attempts at justifying requested budget and thus tax increases.

Bureaucrats have suggested some very politically unpalatable tax increases to replace lost tax revenue should politicians want to reduce the proposed residential tax hikes. They’ve suggested, for example, that reducing the proposed budget to only a 1% residential tax increase could be accomplished by: 1) Increased fees for downtown metered parking, 2) Introducing a $5 youth user fee for outdoor sports fields, and 3) Increasing senior’s basic annual membership charge for city recreational facilities from $5 to $122.37 yearly. They don't get it that these increased fees would greatly reduce participation.

No where do city officials suggest re-prioritizing budgeted items to cut city spending or indeed looking for increased efficiencies to make up the shortfall.

When you give the city staff the responsibility for coming up with the budget without giving them guidelines or direction, you are not likely to get anything different from past practices....and certainly not a hold or cut in taxes....that would only come as a result of demands from strong politicians.

Had I been elected as mayor, I would have led council to direct the city manager to present a budget reflecting a 3% tax cut for city property owners without any service cuts. And we would have sent back the budget as many times as necessary until the bureaucrats got it right.

Such a system would have caused city officials to look for increased efficiencies, set priorities, and gain some appreciation for administering the city without the benefit of a budget that balloons as much as necessary to include anything they damn well please. Such a system would even work to change the mental set of administers so they would have to start living within a fixed income budget like the rest of us.

Such a focus on limited finances would also focus the entire city staff to exercise more care in their expenditures. If the bosses don’t give a damn about wasteful spending, why should the front line workers.

As an example of not giving a damn about public expenses, some city workmen were doing some sidewalk and curb repair work on my street last summer and abandoned the barricades and sidewalk metal forms on the boulevard and finally picked them up close to two months after the work was completed when a neighbour called city works on a number of occasions, finally getting action when he threatened to take the stuff to the dump. Another example of lack of care are the snow plow operators beating the hell out of the curbs so as to create summer make-work projects.

The wastage of the make-work practices of many city hall workers reminds me of the old union “featherbedding” tactics of duplicating and then trashing work in unionized newspaper offices for work that had not been done in-house.

According to the Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure List, the city had 71 employees making more than $100,000 in 2009, with salaries ranging from just over $250,000 for the city manager and an additional four earning over $150,000 annually. This is significantly more than the vast majority of these individuals would earn in the private sector....and yet with all these handsomely paid workers, city hall still requires vast sums to be spent on consultant’s reports.

We need a new kind of business thinking whereby officials must figure out how to do more with less....the same as in the private sector.

Without focussing employee attention on waste, fat, improved productivity, and improved efficiency, you perpetuate the idea that these are not important...that city hall with politician’s blessing can simply go to the people for more and more cash every year.

The only way to focus attention on the bottom line and controlled spending is to determine the upper limits of spending at the beginning of the budget process and have city staff work to deliver more with less.

After all, this is the approach that must be taken by every private sector business if it expects to survive in this competitive world.

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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