Things have certainly changed around the Wellington County Council table in recent years.
Four or five years ago, county budget day meant speeches and questions, councillors handing out pages of proposed cuts and changes, and a sometimes lengthy debate of those proposed changes.
This year, the budget was barely mentioned. It was presented as part of the administration, finance and personnel committee report. Committee chairman John Green introduced an amendment that applied last-minute provincial grant funding and reduced the taxation increase to 1.9 percent.
Both the amendment and the budget itself as part of the committee report were voted on and approved with no questions or comments.
What’s going on?
Granted the 1.9 percent increase to the county levy (the amount the county asks municipalities to raise on property taxes) is better than the original 3 percent plus, and well below the 4-5 percent forecast in the 2007 five-year plan.
But it’s difficult to believe that every councillor agreed with every item, that none of them wanted to make a last-ditch appeal for a zero increase, or some other shuffling of costs.
Perhaps all that was taken care of in committee meetings, where department budgets have been discussed over the past month.
When county councillors used to present those multi-page justifications for cuts back in the old days, they were often told committee was the place to go – that the final full council meeting where the budget was to be adopted wasn’t the place to be presenting major cuts and changes to the final budget.
But there certainly wasn’t much questioning of the library, Terrace or museum budgets at the January information, heritage and seniors committee meeting. Committee members wanted to know more details about some capital items – including one that isn’t affecting this year’s budget.
The only concerted questioning came from library board member Sheila Gamble who wanted to point out how expensive in staffing the 14-branch library system is compared to a single urban branch that would have similar circulation. But there was no suggestion of cuts, changes, or reductions, and all three department budgets at that committee meeting were approved without change.
It seems that county councillors are content to bow to the expertise of staff to produce a budget, and then accept what’s before them. Perhaps councillors are satisfied with the minimal increase.
In the past, the forecasted increase in the previously approved five-year-plan and the approved direction to staff didn’t seem to matter to those wanting last-minute cuts or changes, who forged ahead in the hope of getting a majority of councillors to back them.
An increase of less than 2 percent adds about one percent to the tax bill of local residents, as about half of property taxes goes to the county – and one percent isn’t much of an increase, after all. But as more than one councillor pointed out in the past, an extra few dollars in tax for someone on a fixed income can be a very big deal.
We’re just surprised no one around the council table seemed to want to be bothered pushing for an even tighter budget.
Guest editorial by Francis Baker