A taxpayers’ advocacy group says city hall is not sharing enough budget details with the public.
In an open letter published in today’s Recorder and Times, the Brockville Taxpayers Association questions whether city officials are truly taking the zero-based budgeting approach signalled by Mayor Jason Baker, and suggests sharing more information with councillors and the public would help ease such worries.
“We would like to see council have a more active role in discussing the budget details,” notes the letter, signed by the group’s chairman, Dave Cochrane.
“We feel council should have a good understanding of how the staff have created the budget line items. By having some detailed knowledge of each department council will be able to have ‘oversight.’”
In an interview Monday, Cochrane said the group is generally pleased with council’s willingness to change its approach to budgeting, and the taxpayers’ group is offering to help. But it is disappointed to see staff presenting a complex city budget to councillors in brief summary form.
“Maybe they’ve done a good job, but council hasn’t asked enough questions, and council is the representative of the taxpayers,” said Cochrane.
“The taxpayer needs to know more about what’s going on.”
The taxpayers’ association, which has eight members, describes itself as “a citizens advocacy group dedicated to lower taxes, less waste and accountable government.”
Once headed by mayoral candidate Cec Drake, the group has been active as a fiscal watchdog since the tenure of former mayor David Henderson, having been formed in the wake of the Ontario Provincial Police costing.
For this year’s budget, city hall has returned to a zero-based process, trying to build the entire budget from the ground up, rather than the practice of recent decades: Starting with the previous year’s service levels and building a budget from there.
Cochrane said the association favours zero-based budgeting, but the group wants real evidence such a process is in fact happening.
The association’s letter notes the group believed “that council, through their finance committee, would meet and review not only ‘summary budgets,’ but be able to review line item projections, or at least conduct a review by cost centres, and question the budgeter on how these amounts were developed.”
“We question that budgets are not being developed by pure zero-based budgeting principles (at least no demonstrated evidence of it for council to review), but rather developed using mainly historical data, and presented showing several cost summaries. These summaries, when compared with the 2019 budget and actuals, may show a reduction year-over-year. But did council have a chance to question these numbers?”
Cochrane objects to the absence of “cost centres,” or clearly defined generators of cost, in the reports being brought to council.
He gives the example of the new P&G Pavilion. While it was built at no cost to taxpayers, having been funded by Procter&Gamble and the Brockville Winter Classic Committee, the pavilion at the Rotary Pad is now in the city’s hands.
That makes it a brand-new cost centre, as all associated costs, such as electricity and maintenance, fall to city operations; yet the public has seen no budget for it, said Cochrane.
The taxpayers’ group, which hopes to increase its public presence in the near future, also wonders whether the budgeting done by city staff has involved the shifting of expenses from one area to another, without council’s full attention.
While such moves may be justified, they should be fully scrutinized by elected officials, said Cochrane. He added the concept of zero-based budgeting includes the element of thorough review.
Baker on Monday said he has heard the taxpayer group’s concerns, but believes it is appropriate for the detailed work of zero-based budgeting to take place at the staff level.
“Council is not here to micro-manage. We set policy,” said Baker.
That said, the mayor stresses city hall is transparent and any member of the public can ask for more details of the city budget.
In fact, said Baker, some on council or its standing committees have asked for business cases and received them, including Drake, who sits on the finance and administration committee as a citizen appointee.
Council decided years ago to move away from the line-by-line budgeting process adopted in previous administrations, said Baker, who is satisfied staff is following a zero-based budgeting process.
He also noted there is a “learning curve” for staff as it embarks on a process to which it is not accustomed.
“This process will continue to get tweaked and tailored,” said the mayor.
“We’re moving in a much better direction.”
Coun. Larry Journal, the finance committee chairman, said he is one of the people who asked for, and received, more detail from staff.
“From my perspective, this process has worked out quite well,” said Journal.
“I’m very pleased with the process and this is what I would call zero-based budgeting.”