Budget comes down Monday

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Mayor refers to proposed tax adjustment as 'modest'

Monday marks one of the most important days in the municipal calendar: that’s when the city’s 2012 budget will be made public.

While members of council have had their budget binders for approximately three weeks, the yearlong fiscal plan will be officially tabled in council chambers Oct. 31, triggering a month-long process that will culminate in the city’s mother of all documents.

Gene Peskens, director of financial services and acting chief financial officer for the city, described this year’s budget as more of the same of the last couple of years.

“We feel the pressure. We have high taxes because we don’t have that non-residential tax base. Our goal and council direction is to keep tax increases as low as possible,” Peskens said.

Acting city manager Chris Jardine referred to it as a “no stone left unturned” process.

“Don’t just assume the money you had last year is what you need again this year,” Jardine described the message to city directors and managers. “There has been a significant amount of due diligence administratively to leave no stone unturned.”

Besides council’s directive to keep tax increases to a minimum, administration has also factored in elements such as growth in some utilities, a few extra kilometres of roads and expanding transit to a new subdivision.

“It’s not just 2011 or 2012 growth,” Jardine said. “It’s the previous three or four years cumulative that says we really need to think about putting that bus route there.”

Mayor Nolan Crouse said he hasn’t taken his fine-tooth comb to his budget binder yet, but so far likes what he sees.

“There’s nothing right now that sticks out as being compelling,” said Crouse. “There’s no lightning rod and the numbers aren’t going to be alarming so what’s going to be presented is a modest tax adjustment.”

Both the operational and capital budgets presented and voted on by council are for the 2012 year, with data provided in both for the following two years for planning purposes.

One major change for this year requires administration to post every information request by councillors to the city’s website for viewing every Friday. Council will also host a town hall meeting on Nov. 7 at Sir George Simpson at 6:30 p.m.

If all goes as planned, council will vote on the final budget on Dec. 19.

Bringing forward a budget for a city of 60,000 residents is a demanding, complicated process that starts as early as the spring of each year when administration receives council’s priorities. Based on those items and a review of the capital plan in May and June by the standing committee on finance, on which all members of council sit, the senior leadership team (SLT) gets to work, emailing all departments in June for their wish lists. The finance department spends the rest of the summer drafting the operating budget.

“That’s complete in August,” said Peskens. “In the middle of August, we will discuss the draft budget with the senior leadership team.”

After a thorough review, the SLT combs through the budget, an intensive 40-hour process in which every single business case put forward by every department is approved or denied.

“So say there’s 100 business cases. The SLT will decide to endorse maybe one-third of them,” Peskens said.

By October, each councillor receives two six-inch-thick binders, one containing the operating budget, the other the capital budget. Once the budget is made public, council will spend every Tuesday and Thursday requesting information and issuing motions. Every single motion to amend the budget will be set aside until Nov. 24 when council will tackle every one.

Administration has used that experience in previous years to package its draft budget, Jardine said.

“We’ve been responsive to past queries to be responsive to get council at a more aware level,” he said. “We expect there will be healthy debates and there should be.

“You won’t see any rubber stamping. Administratively we wouldn’t expect that.”

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