Column: Morinville council doesn’t question First Quarter Report

by Ed Cowley, freelancer

Morinville town council cut the tax rate increase for 2022 to less than one-third the level proposed in the original draft budget they received from administration shortly after being elected in the October 2021 general municipal election. So it appears residents and taxpayers should be happy with the 5% tax rate hike that was due in June.
That appearance is wrong. A report received by council a month prior to passing the tax increase was just rubber-stamped by council as part of a consensus agenda (where all items in that category are passed by a single motion without discussion), however that report reveals the 5% tax rate hike was not required to achieve a balanced consolidated budget. The document is the 2022 First Quarter Report.

Following is each council member’s explanation for leaving the report on the consensus agenda without a single question being asked.

Mayor Simon Boersma stated, “Throughout the first quarter Council was regularly updated by Administration as to the budget status, due to the fact administration was operating under an interim budget. Council had just passed the 2022 budget at the March 24 Regular Meeting of Council [and] were very aware of current situation.”

“As the first quarter was conducted largely on an interim budget, and at less than quarter of the year funding, I felt confident in knowing where we were at from the presented and previous data,” stated the longest serving councillor, Stephen Dafoe.

“Although the optics may look as though a question hadn’t been asked, we had just gone line by line, through our robust budget cycle. We spent many many days and hours asking and questioning financial spending and lines. It was a long process and with many new members on Council, it was very detailed and examined. By the Final Reporting, we had been through this document and previous reporting with great explanation and questions,” stated second term councillor Rebecca Balanko.

“The reason why I didn’t pull it from the consent agenda was that we had just gone through a long and drawn-out budgeting process so I felt comfortable/in tune with the financial reports at that point. Also in that first quarter council had an interim budget and a hiring freeze. Administration was working with less than what they had asked or requested in the 2022 budget proposal and any overages (i.e snow removal) came to council for approval,” stated second term councillor Scott Richardson.

“As the April 19th COW [Committee of the Whole] was shortly following the final approval of the budget which included months of robust discussions around the budget, I was comfortable with the reports as presented along with explanations of variations up to date,” stated first term councillor Jenn Anheliger.

“I believe the reason no member of council asked a single question of administration regarding the ‘2022 Financial Reporting to March 31st, 2022’ is simply an extension of having passed an interim budget in the middle of December which essentially locked in our operating budget at 20% for the first quarter–and Council spending so much time working through our 2022 financials the following three months. As a newly-elected member of Council I was consumed by the sheer volume of onboard learning with this budget. My budget 2022 binder (which included annual comparable figures) went everywhere with me until we finally approved the Operating Budget at our March 22nd meeting. I sought every opportunity during budget deliberations to better understand the historical context on financial decisions and expenditures during previous term(s). I can’t speak to how things were done with previous councils, but I will note this council directs many clarifying questions to administration prior to all meetings for the purposes of time and respect,” stated first term councillor Maurice St. Denis.

“I reviewed the report in my council agenda package and did not have any questions so I did not pull it from the consent agenda. Usually when you pull it from the consent agenda it is because you have questions but perhaps it should have been pulled anyway so some discussion could be had for the benefit of our constituents,” stated first term councillor Ray White.

While all of the council appears to agree the report could have been pulled back to the regular meeting agenda for discussion, most attributed the failure to do so as the result of familiarity with the figures through the recent budget approval. The problem is that as a governing body they appear to have been drawn into the numerical quicksand of budget line details and pulled away from analyzing the first quarter significant figures from a legislative perspective.

As the governing body, they needed to compare the real 2021 first quarter figures to the actual 2022 first quarter figures. The analysis shows that a 5% tax rate hike in 2022 was not necessary for a balanced consolidated budget — but council members had to look at the big picture not the minutia of line-by-line budget consideration. The tax rate hike was passed just weeks after the quarterly report was silently received.

It must be stated council deserves to be commended for being accountable to the public. Not one of the council members hid from this press question. In fact there was 100 per cent participation in two questions sent to council members—a paradigm shift from previous councils that shows a fresh desire for transparency. [Hopefully the mechanics of transparency will be worked out with administration in the near future to become routine for all municipal issues.]

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