September 4, 2016
The following are published excerpts from responses by all councillors when asked about their approach to the upcoming 2017 budget process:
* Is this year’s budget more difficult than in other years?
* Can a special tax levy be avoided?
* Is it hard to make unpopular decisions?
guelpgspeaks.ca comments are in italics.
Mayor Cam Guthrie
“It will be one of the most challenging city budgets in years.
“Next week, Guelph city council returns to the horseshoe for its first meeting after the summer break and will soon begin 2017 budget workshops and deliberations.
It won’t be pretty.”
Well, That’s an understandable understatement
“Longstanding public demand for new projects such as a new main library and south end recreation centre, combined with the challenges of addressing the city’s aging infrastructure and shrinking reserve funds, will make for some heated debate over the next three months.
“Then there is the huge elephant in the room that is the impending discussion about a specific tax levy (2 per cent for five years has been floated) to help pay for that crumbling infrastructure.
“The decisions of council, over the past 10 years, are coming home to roost,” Guthrie said of the financial issues facing the city.
“I was elected to get a handle on the finances of this city and it’s time to buckle down and focus on needs, not wants.” Guthrie believes the city spends too much on operations and hopes council supports his efforts to reduce those costs.
Cam, don’t count on it
“The debate about ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’ comes up in everybody’s household and the same debate needs to come up at the council horseshoe.”
There is some financial relief coming in the form of infrastructure funding from the federal and provincial governments, although how much and when that happens isn’t known. What is known is that the city will have to be prepared to pony up its own share for those projects.
It’s best not to count on the provincial government as it is in worse shape financially thatn Guelph. We have to fix our own mistakes and errors, of which there is no shortage.
The Mayor believes that a special tax levy can be avoided. He said the operational costs of the city have blown out of proportion and the city needs to look at how it spends its money, reducing operational costs to focus on the capital side.
Let’s give the mayor a high-five for identifying the serious problems facing the city’s cost of operation.s
Guthrie said it’s important the public be educated on the realities of the city’s finances and the important role of replenishing its reserves.
Cam, you’ve been reading my mind. GB
Guthrie is planning at least three town hall meetings, other councillors will likely follow suit.
Let’s make sure we all support the mayor’s Town Hall meetings
The Councilors Speak
All 12 city councillors were asked to weigh in on three things regarding the upcoming 2017 budget deliberations.
“The growth discrepancy between Guelph’s operating and capital budget over the past decade, along with the financial impacts of the Urbacon lawsuit has created very real stressors on our city reserves and capital budget.
”With Federal and provincial governments committed to new funding in this regard, council should pause to see what is generated from these commitments. Further, we need to work together to ‘right size’ our respective capital and operating budgets.
“Unpopular decisions are part of this role. I will not support attempts to erase previous council mistakes through a tax levy.”
Dan, it will take years to fix the nine-year neglect of the infrastructure of a 200-year old city. Your’e right, a tax levy is not the way to go.
“Residents need to see council working to resolve our capital issues with the finances already entrusted to us. They need to witness this council being better stewards of city finances than previous terms and I don’t believe a levy in 2017 sends that message.”
“The lower reserve levels are an immediate problem, we can not keeping spending the reserves and not replenishing them like in the past years.
“Yes, (a tax levy) can and should be avoided to the extent possible. Previous years’ budget recommendations from staff de-funded the capital budget while recommending new staff positions and increased operating costs. Now operating costs need to be rolled back as it is now evident that we have adopted an unsustainable model.”
Bob, you’ve nailed it. But reading some of your colleagues’ comments tells me there will be diffuculty in achieving operational savings.
It is not difficult for me [to make tough decisions]. I have been trying to raise infrastructure spending/reducing operating for years but have not had support from staff or the majority of council.”
Andy Van Hellemond:
Van Hellemond believes this budget is no more challenging than others and believes a tax levy can be avoided.
“What is best for the whole City and for future generation’s? Popularity is not something you base your decision on. A little like being a sports official.”
Well, Andy if anyone would know it would be you! Bring your whistle to the next meeting.
– “I think this year will be an extra challenge for two reasons: One, we know now that we would be irresponsible if we did not address our infrastructure gap and our affordable housing crisis. We must do it, but there will be tension around how much this will affect our tax rate.
James, what has affordable housing have to do with a crumbling infrastructure? Why didn’t your friend, the former mayor, do something about affordable housing for eight years?
“There will be a large education component with this year’s budget. We have to let taxpayers understand the necessity for keeping our city sustainable for future generations, which is a shared economic responsibility for all of us.”
James, why do you continue to tell people that council’s responsibility is to ensure sustainability for future generations? Your responsibility is to ensure that the city works and you can start by picking up my garbage and plowing my street.
“At the same time, I expect that we will see budget initiatives designed to reduce our budgets across every department. Can we address those future challenges and accomplish those cutbacks? Can we have it both ways? That’s the challenge.”
James, Are you equating operational efficiencies with service “cutbacks?
“We can avoid the levy if the added investment costs are just added to our property tax bills as a direct tax hike, or if we totally avoid our responsibilities and pass along the job of reducing our ‘infrastructure gap’ to a future council. Personally I think the levy is the most painless way to address this shortfall. We’ll see it directly on our hydro bills and we’ll understand the importance of conservation and we’ll appreciate the local impact of climate change.”
James, there you go again. Tell us, how will we appreciate the “local impact of climate change” when our water and electricity bills are one of the highest in the province? Our Hydro bill has increased by 42.5 per cent in just four years, or maybe you haven’t noticed.
“I have become comfortable as a councillor in not basing every decision on how that might affect me at election time. Each choice we make around the horseshoe must, in my view, be based on what is the best decision for our city’s welfare and long-term sustainability.”
Well, I hope that won’t influence your decision when the 2018 civic election rolls around.
“I’m not sure it’s more challenging than any of the others, actually. The real issue is trying to get the whole of council behind the budget once we have deliberated all of the line items.
“We have to be mindful to make sure what we’re not doing is only looking at saving money for the city, because that’s irresponsible. We have to build a city for the future and building that city means building it now, not for tomorrow.”
Phil, why do you believe that saving money is irresponsisible? You’d better read the Fung report, of which you received a copy. That data came from the city’s own published financial reports.
“You get what you pay for. At some point we have to address that and whether you do that as a tax or as a levy, to my mind, is really immaterial. We need to make sure we have the best possible Guelph we can for now and for future generations.”
Phil, really? You believe the citizens have received good value for their tax dollars even though the previous administration blew millions on the Urbacon lawsuit, the Guelph Municipal Holdings fiasco, $37.1 million and counting, and that’s just for starters?
– “The 2017 budget will be my 10th budget and the budget process is always challenging. It is difficult to balance the needs of our community while being mindful of affordability for our taxpayers.”
June, is that something you want to brag about given your record as chair of the Finance Committee?
“Options to fund capital infrastructure are being discussed and I believe staff will bring a recommendation to council this fall for consideration . . . There are a variety of options for addressing the infrastructure funding. I don’t believe the infrastructure gap can be avoided and I look forward to learning more when staff brings forward their recommendation.”
Are you part of those infrastructure discussions, if so, why are you looking forward to the staff recommendations? Are you or aren’t you in the loop as Chair of Finance?
“Council makes difficult decisions every month that are unpopular in the public eye. It is not about making popular or unpopular decisions it is about making well-informed decisions. It is weighing the risks, considering the legal implications, available resources and having opportunities available for our community to participate in the consultation. All of these are important considerations before pushing the yes or no button.”
June, this sounds a lot like the closed session meetings are structured to handle the fallout of unpopular decisions. You voted for the huge senior staff increases for 2015 that was held in camera to be revealed four months laterby the provincial Sunshine List. Furhter, your role on the Board of GMHI for four years, comes to mind. When does secrecy and suppression of public information end?
“Every budget deliberation is challenging, however given the current financial legacy the city is facing, council needs to focus on the basics to ensure that citizens are receiving value for their tax dollars.”
Christine, I agree but some of your colleagues are more interested in the future of the city rather that fixing the costs of the past.
“Yes, a special infrastructure tax levy can be avoided by continuing to fund the infrastructure shortfall through the capital budget. Moving the shortfall to a special levy is just a shell game. A special levy should only be used for a finite line item such as the Urbacon lawsuit settlement, in order to replenish the raided reserves. When the repayment is complete, the tax levy must be disbanded. Investing in the city’s infrastructure is ongoing and needs to be sustainability funded within the capital budget with specific projects identified.”
Christine, what worries me is that with an estimated ten-year tax levy building a $250 million cash pile, is it possible the temptation for the majority council “futurists” would be to spend it? For example, let’s consider climate change, poverty, affordable housing and energy sustainability? Isn’t that what they did for the past eight years?
“I believe that councillors are elected to make the best possible decisions for the City while weighing all of the information available . . . What can make it more difficult is when so many millions have been wasted and then having a council approve a separate tax levy for infrastructure because they need more money. Prioritize!”
“The only councillors who find it difficult to make unpopular or controversial decisions are those more concerned with getting re-elected than doing the right thing for the city.”
Mike, and your evidence of that is?
“The challenge is addressing complex multifaceted issues responsibly rather than opting for solutions which make you look financially prudent but ultimately overly simplistic (such as holding tax increases to the rate of inflation). Many people want to achieve this goal but when faced with the service reductions necessary to achieve it often become willing to accept higher increases if they also believe we are getting good value for the money spent.”
So you feel citizens received good value for their money in the past nine years? Remember Urbacon, the District Energy fiasco, the railway underpass on Wyndham that large commercial trucks crash into and the bike lane projects that shrink major roads?
“The most important thing is to ensure we are getting value for the taxes we pay. Most people I speak with choose to live in Guelph for the quality of life we enjoy here, this can be directly related to the services and facilities we provide the community and unfortunately these services and facilities cost money.”
Mike, I guess you don’t get around much.
“The upcoming budget is no more challenging than any previous budget. Municipal budgets are challenging every year. Balancing affordability, efficiency, infrastructure renewal, growth and new strategic investment is a constant.”
Should we be holding a tag day for you and a prayer for taxpayers?
“That being said, the biggest challenge I see with the upcoming budget is political. Everyone has an opinion that deserves to be heard and valued. But at the end of the day, it’s not about taxes for me. Taxes are the dues we pay to live in a great community. It’s not a hard number — it’s a reflection of what we value. Those who only value hard services want their taxes to reflect that. Those who value the environment, community, arts, parks, social supports, livability, etc. feel differently. Pleasing everyone is impossible. Efficiency is a given.”
Leanne: I think I see your point of view. You are not about taxes, ie revenue, but about spending. Therein lies your problem. You didn’t mention your role on the Guelph Police Services Board that requested $34 million for the renovation of police headquarters. Or explain why the request jumped from $13 million to $34 million in just six months. Or your role in moving the civic museum to restore a derelict convent building on someone else’s property. The estimated cost of $12.7 million that five years later was reported to cost $16.5 million. The $1 million spent on landscaping was special.
“A special levy can only be avoided if (a) other levels of government pay 100% of municipal infrastructure backlogs (not going to happen), or (b) we add the cost of infrastructure projects to the capital budget rather than a special levy. The second option will have the same result as a special levy.”
Is this more voodoo financial thinking? You are proposing an euther or choice thati us the same thing except the second adds to the city debt. You do know the difference between debt and deficit, right?
“I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t affect me to make unpopular decisions. But it was the job I was elected to do — to look after our city, our citizens, our environment — not just for today but the next generation. I take this role seriously, which means making decisions that might be unpopular in 2016, but turn out to be wise many years from now when I am no longer in office. I can live with that.”
Leanne, your nobility is stunning. Your lengthy tour on council has seen some of the most secretive and stupid decisions made that cost citizens millions in higher taxes, user fees and life essentials such as water and electricity.
“I can’t recall a year where we haven’t said that we are facing a challenging budget. I think the challenge this year will be to start to get our reserves back in shape. Also, there will be a discussion around service rationalization/reviews. As always, we need to tackle the challenges and not each other.”
Cathy, you have restored my faith that there are members of council who understand what needs to be done.
“Unless there are other solutions to funding the infrastructure gap, I think (the tax levy) will be difficult to avoid. Many other municipalities are already using a tax levy. We would need to develop specific criteria for the use of this fund to ensure it is used to renew aging infrastructure rather than funding the development charges shortfall associated with growth.”
Cathy, please don’t quit when you’re ahead. That levy is a threat to every property owner in the city. The solution is service rationalization aka staff reductions to reduce costs. I hope you have read Pat Fung’s detailed analysis how to save $20 million in operational costs.
“It is difficult to make unpopular decisions. I find that most people respect an unpopular decision — even if they disagree —when you take the time to engage and discuss why the decision was made. Norm Jary’s advice to me when I was first elected was ‘Cathy, you will only please 50 per cent of the people 50 per cent of the time. Make a decision that you believe is in the city’s best interest after considering all sides of an issue.'”
Well Norm was half right.
“The 2017 budget, like it’s predecessors, has its own unique challenges, but I would say that yes, there are greater financial pressures for 2017. This doesn’t necessarily stem from a large increase in money needed in 2017 versus 2016 or 2015, but rather that council and the public are now more aware of our precarious financial state regarding infrastructure funding and reserve balances.”
Mark, that’s refreshing to know that the public is more aware of the precarious financial state. I only hope that some of your colleagues stop keeping their heads in the clouds and realize the situation.
“I see only two ways to avoid an infrastructure levy. The first is to not call it a levy and just fund infrastructure through the general tax base more aggressively — which will give us exactly the same result but isn’t as transparent or open with council’s intentions. The second is to do what municipal governments across Canada have been doing for years (including previous Guelph councils): systematically kick the infrastructure problems down the road, past the next election, and further jeopardise the safety and security of Guelph residents.”
Mark, you make me nervous when you suggest increasing property taxes to pay for the infrastructure shortfall. Isn’t it a levy by any other name? Just reduce the operational overhead and the money will be available for renovating the city infrastrucure.
“There is no magical answer to the city’s $23 million-plus annual infrastructure deficit and $160 million-plus infrastructure backlog — the city needs money to sustainably fund infrastructure.
“Making difficult decisions is a critical part of being a municipal councillor, especially when the decision is the correct one, yet unpopular with residents. When elected, I pledged to serve Guelph and its residents to the best of my ability and I am more committed to doing the right thing than doing the thing that may earn more votes in 2018.”
“Our annual budgeting is always challenging and, other then our particular focus on our infrastructure gap, I expect it to be the usual struggle of trying to get as close to CPI as possible without significant service cuts. No small task.”
“Sure [a levy can be avoided], but we would need significant upper level Federal and Provincial funding support, perhaps more debt, and likely some significant service cuts.”
Karl, you cannot depend on bailouts from senior government to resolve problems we have created over the past eight years. Pat Fung outlined a program to reduce costs that would have little or no effect on services to the public.
“We were elected to make decisions in the best interest of the city as a whole . . . I take this responsibility very seriously. However, once we have all taken our best shot at fine tuning the budget and it is clear no one has any additional suggestions, especially myself, that are likely to be supported by Council, I vote for the budget.”
Well, I certainly hope so.
So there you have it, right from our councillor’s mouths.
I divided the council performance points and opinions into five political parts.
* First there are the Futurists or doctrinaire progressives. These include. Phil Allt, James Gordon, Leanne Piper.
* Next there is the left leaning moderate, Cathy Downer
* The Centurists include Christine Billings, Dan Gibson, Andy Van Hellemond, Mayor Guthrie, Bob Bell
* On the fence we find Karl Wettstein and Mark MacKinnon.
* Along for the ride, June Hofland and Mike Salisbury.