Letter: Budget or Budge It?

‘Tis Budget Season.

Could some upfront data provide a comparative frame of reference for Morinvillians before the dance of the details and priorities begins? Could this comparative data be widely shared in the local media as a starting point for citizen debate? Would some driving questions help ‘budge’ the process in the direction of some clear targets from the outset?

Three questions for Town Council and Administration:

Question #1: How do Morinville taxes compare and what increase is planned for 2013?

Let’s start by asking how do our taxes compare to other communities like Redwater, Westlock, Stony Plain, Sturgeon, St. Albert and Edmonton? With this information at the ready we could nudge the budget process along by inviting Council to state what the planned tax rate increase for 2013 is from the very beginning of the process? Put this number out there boldly and publicly in the local media for all to consider.

Begin with the end in mind.

The typical process is a kinda fudge it exercise that waltzes us around with outrage, surprise and an eventual exhausted “OKkaaaaaaay” in turn. We have all heard this tune.

“What do you mean our taxes are going up by 9%!” Then the hard part begins and after much scrambling, struggling and a flurry of paper and coloured charts we are told taxes are only going up by 7%! “What… 7%!” Then the really, really, really, really hard work is done and taxes are finally determined to be going up by only 6.6%! “Okkaaaaaaaaaaay.” Tired feet. Sigh… sit back down.

What if Council provided direction to Administration by stating that taxes may increase by the rate of inflation plus no more than say 1.8%? If the Alberta rate of inflation is reportedly averaging 1.4%, year to date, then the Morinville tax rate target for 2012-2013 is set at or below 3.2%? A desired result is now established. Cue the serious chamber music.

Council’s direction to Administration could then be succinctly summed up as; “Git ‘er done.”

Who knows, maybe this is the tax increase we are aiming for? Maybe no tax increase is planned? (The latter possibility is generally accompanied by the mellow strumming of celestial harps…)

Question #2: How do Morinville municipal staffing levels and costs compare?

If staffing costs typically comprise the vast bulk of the total cost of municipal operations then this should be a driving question.

Some information from 2011 shows the following when comparing Morinville’s population with some other municipal staffing ratios. (In fairness, 2012 data might show a much-improved picture? How would we know?)

Clearly asked, how many Morinvillians are there for each municipal staff position? How does Morinville compare?

Please Note: While the lowest number is the most efficient number in golf this is not necessarily true when comparing the number of residents available to support staffing position costs.

Residents per Full Time Equivalent Municipal Staff Position

Morinville 141.73

Redwater 168.62
Westlock 171.17
Devon 167.54
Edson 144.22
Lacombe 143.11
Strathmore 204.10
Stony Plain 189.03
Sturgeon 153.32

Average: 167.63

If the average Residents per Full Time Equivalent Municipal Staff Position of these other communities was 167.63 why was Morinville’s number 141.73?

(If the numbers given above are dated or inaccurate Town Administration should be asked to make public up to date 2012 data prior to the budget process. The tricky part here is to make sure that the numbers reported reflect only the same or similar staff designations and that the sample size is not increased to the point where Morinville’s number eventually ends up as the average! That’s why it would be important to use the communities named above. You know what they say about statistics…)

A more straightforward way of reporting staffing costs, or a more direct number that could prove helpful might be: “What are the per resident dollar costs for municipal staffing when comparing Morinville to the above communities?” You would of course need to include all costs; salary, benefits, etc. Geez. Talk about focused discussion!

Information of this sort could provide transparent answers that would either support recent staffing trends or result in a frenzy of binders unseen in recent times?

Once again, why not begin with the end in mind?

What if Council provided direction to Administration stating that the number of Residents per Full Time Equivalent Municipal Staff Position is to be 160 for 2013? Is this a harsh or unreasonable starting point? Who knows, maybe we are there already? Or, Council could stipulate that staffing costs, by comparison, are not to exceed the 2013 average per resident dollar costs for staffing. Did the music just stop?

Who knows, maybe our staffing costs per resident are already at or below the average?

Question #3: How does Council verify whether Morinvillians receive the best possible value for each tax dollar spent?

This question nudges up against the possibility of spending money to save money without having to go to the Olympics!

Is a regular, fully independent external review process in place? If so, what service improvements, increased efficiencies and cost management plans are part of the 2013 budget?

If not, is it finally time for a fully independent Staffing Levels Assessment and Operations Efficiency Review to provide data and recommendations for 2013 through 2017? Such a review validates best practices and efficiencies and points out practices that need to be improved or changed. A proper third party review provides recommendations for service efficiencies and effective cost management initiatives over time. There’s always a catch… a quality review costs money and an allocation would need to be included in the 2013 budget.

Who knows, maybe our operational, staffing and other costs are providing the absolute best value for each taxpayer dollar spent? If such were found to be the case we could celebrate and bust open a moderately priced domestic beer… to be shared.

If areas for improvement and enhanced efficiencies were identified we could more keenly focus on the value proposition between tax dollars spent and services received.

The questions really are; Who knows? Or, who wants to know? Wouldn’t all taxpayers, councillors and administrative personnel want to know how we are doing?

What if Council provided direction to Administration by stating that a fully independent Staffing Levels Assessment and Operations Efficiency Review is to be undertaken and that Council is to be provided with the Final Report of this review on or before August 31, 2013?

(The tricky part here is making sure that such a review is external and fully independent. To get a fully independent review takes a lot of hard work up front with at least three proposals from competing agencies and an open vetting process comprised of Council members, the Finance Committee and citizen representatives. The data out is only as good as the objectivity in?)

In conclusion:

Driving questions can nudge the budget ‘process’ in a direction that helps us frame The Dance of the Details and Priorities.

Are Morinville taxes reasonable, staffing levels cost efficient and is the best value received for each tax dollar spent?

The same old budget process probably ends up in the same old place? We might wonder if the perennial process is designed to waltz us there… smothered in details, inundated in priorities and enveloped in a gentle mist of befuddlement.
Tired feet. Sigh…

Is it time to alter the process with driving questions that begin with the ends in mind and that sharply focus on desired results from the very outset?

What about a tax rate increase of no more than the Alberta rate of inflation plus a publicly stated target number, a staffing ratio that has Morinville taxpayers paying no more than the average per resident dollar costs for staffing and verification that the best value is received for each tax dollar spent?

Budget or Budge It?

Paul O’Dea

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6 Comments

  1. Great article! There needs to be transparency and more accountability with regards to spending.

  2. I fully agree with Maurice’s comment! Yes, it is a great article Paul, well thought out, well written, and it understandable which is so important when dealing with budget items. I hope that Debbie answers some of these points in writing.

    My greatest fear, is that as long as only a handful of people write articles, go to open houses and raise concerns, then really neither the Administration nor Council will change their ways. So Morinvillians, get OUT to the open houses for the 2013 budget and speak OUT and be part of the movement to getting changes to get council and Administration to be trully transparent and fiscally responsible.

    Thank you Paul for taking the time to do this article and I recognize the work that went into it.
    Linda

  3. I find myself wondering why Mr. O’Dea, who obviously has some intelligent ideas, hasn’t run for council himself. I would vote for someone who puts this much heart and thought into the job.

  4. Mr O’Dea,

    A found your article an interesting read and, like the other commenters, appreciate the effort that went into it. I would comment as follows:

    Question 1 – comparisons are fine and useful, however, you must be careful to compare apples to apples e.g. large communities may pay less tax because they have a bigger industrial base, more people, etc. Other, similar sized communities may pay more because they have decided to take risk on a large item, such as St Albert and Servus Place, that artificially inflates their tax rate. Finally, I agree with doing away with the humming and hawing. Pick a rate and either stick with it, or tell us what large item moved and why to lower the rate. Remember how the government lowered the cost of the Henday by not putting in the overpasses, but Alberta taxpayers paid hundreds of millions of dollars less than 10 years later to add them back in.

    Question 2 – While looking at the number of people per fulltime employee, I would also like to see a cost comparison as salaries and types of positions can drive the cost up. My suggestion is to show the people per salary figure, but also include the total cost of salaries and related expenses that each town/city has budgeted (including those costly CAO buy-outs and pensions). Salaries are long-term liabilities that are hard to get rid of cheaply.

    Question 3 – I agree totally. Meaningful performance measurement benchmarks (metrics in the business world) are critical indicators of success or areas where improvement is required.

    Thanks for your contribution.

    Brent

  5. Linda, while I wish either myself or my wife could attend more of the meetings they always seem to be scheduled when we have plans for our children. I’ve only truly started to show an interest in local goings-on of this kind in the last couple of years but I certainly hope as my children get holder and I start to see them gain some independence of their own that I can be more involved and vocal at meetings of that sort. Assuming I still live here at any rate.

  6. Christian, I fully understand the difficulties of both parents working full time jobs and having children that have functions they have to attend. My comment was not a jab, because when I was working full time, I was too tired to take any interest in the local government. I’m just not sure what the answer is but more involvement is required even if it is in the form of email complaints to either the Council or the Administration.

    Just pondering what can be done to change things.

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