If the tone of a Council’s term is defined by the first major decision of its mandate, the road is about to get bumpy for administration. The chest-thumping and calls for accountability voters saw from candidates last fall intensified in the final hours of budget debate on March 11 and saw senior administration enter in to an awkward and inappropriate debate over program funding with individual Councillors. It got so tense and strange at one point that Councillor Stephen Dafoe moved to go “in camera” so that Council could discuss an immediate “labour matter” without the public or (presumably) administration present.
The passing of their first budget was marked by exhausted applause at the end of a long day of meetings and had Council congratulating staff on a job well done. But they failed to get that “line by line” review of the town’s finances on which many of them won votes last October. One wonders that if Council had been given access to the detailed accounts, they might not have doubled the operational review budget and shortened its timeframe.
Residents and Council ought to be asking who this budget really belongs to. Is it a true demonstration of Council’s direction for the community…or is it a wish list from senior management? Administrators have repeatedly referred to this as “Council’s budget,” yet time and time again, the CAO has said publicly that Council doesn’t have the authority to make operational changes to programs that are funded by Council approval.
If that were true, some of the budget amendments made on February 25 would be out of line, such as the window replacement at Perras Place or the sign installation at the Cultural Centre. Both items were scrapped without an opposing word from senior administration; however, when one councillor suggested that appliance rebates given under the water conservation program go to toilets instead, administration quickly took back ownership of the budget. Whether out of naïveté or the exhaustion of eight straight hours of meetings, Council not only did not object to this notion, individual members either said nothing or agreed with it. Further, the passionate plea for leniency from the town’s CAO when Council debated a cut to $40,000 to the Performance Series at the CCC made it even more apparent that administration owns this year’s budget.
Municipal councils are legislatively obligated to pass an annual budget. They are morally obligated to ensure that tax dollars, which fund programs, services and infrastructure, are representative of community desires. It remains to be seen if Council will continue to let administration have the last word on “Council’s budget.”