On fiscal responsibility

Council has for several meetings been going through the budget. In practical terms, this means staff have been writing reports, providing long spreadsheets, and Council members have spent hours reading through those reports and spreadsheets in preparation for meetings. We have then held these meetings (mostly in Workshop format during the day, Jan 23, Jan 25, Jan 30, Feb 6, Feb 13 and Feb 27; you can watch those meetings and read those reports here) and discussed different aspects of the budget in some detail. We were able to ask questions of staff about departmental priorities, about work plan capabilities, about the policies that drive the priorities behind the budget, about where we could fit our own priorities (because we all have them), and at times went line-by-line through different operational and capital line items. These have been productive and positive conversations, and the budget has been iterated along during them.

Through it all, we now have a pretty good understanding of where the budget will land and how we are going to pay for our aggressive capital program ($166 Million in 2023!). Last meeting, we gave instruction to staff for them to prepare budget documents for Bylaws to come to our next meetings.

So, with that background for context, I need to retort to this story. Alas.

The motion that was defeated at Council arrived at the eleventh hour of that months-long budget discussion, and comprised a long list of disconnected funding items. Together they represented something like $8 Million in new spending that was not discussed in previous budget deliberations, though that number is uncertain, because the funding was requested without any actual costing, testing for viability, or understanding of the impact on work plans or the ability to deliver. It was an expensive wish list tacked onto the end of a budget, ballooning it by something like 5%, with no consideration for how this fits into any existing priorities. This is not good governance.

It was further suggested this wish list could be funded by the City’s expected grant from the Growing Communities Fund. This was based on speculation about how much money the City will get, and presumes there will not be any limitations on how this money can be used. In the meeting, staff made it clear that this was not a prudent way to plan for a senior government grant. As we were currently looking at a very aggressive ~$170 Million capital budget for 2023, one that staff have repeatedly pointed out over the last months of open discussions will challenge our debt tolerance and reserve funds, I think treating new capital funding sources as “free money” to be spent willy nilly is the least fiscally responsible idea I have heard in my time in Local Government.

This raises the question of whether, as implied in the headline, Council opposes investments in “New Sidewalks, Paved Roads And Community Festivals In New Westminster”? Of course not. The draft capital budget includes $5 Million in 2023 (more than $20 Million over 5 years) for paving roads alone. This is aside from the $11+ Million to be invested in 2023 in road and street safety improvements and $4+ Million to be invested in 2023 in pedestrian improvements (sidewalks, light signal and crosswalk upgrades, etc). We also have one of the most generous community grant programs in the Lower Mainland to support local groups running festivals and activating our streets. Every bit of that funding has been discussed and prioritized, because saying yes to more is always easy; putting all new spending into the context of tax increases, debt and reserves before you spend it is harder.

I have heard people ask us to do more. I have heard people ask us to spend less. I have not heard people asking us to be fiscally irresponsible and spend money for the sake of spending it. That is why I didn’t support the motion presented on Monday. I am happy the majority of council was equally as prudent.

As perhaps an aside (now that I am into it), there are other quotes in that piece that criticize council colleagues for not being “collaborative”. This after a meeting where there were no less than four motions brought to the floor by the author, and three of those motions were passed by a majority of Council – two of them (in my recollection) unanimously. Collaboration in my mind means working together to evaluate each other’s ideas and finding compromise and places of agreement, it does not require the capitulation to all ideas regardless of how poorly they are presented. The job of those seven people around that table is to govern, and the hardest part of governing is in setting priorities, including deciding when to say no.

I find this extra disingenuous in that these debates are framed as being partisan, with the implication that council members are acting for partisan reasons only. This implication is disrespectful to the intentions and professionalism of the council members. It also is not reflected in the voting record over the last few months. There have been many unanimous votes, there have been votes with one, two or three votes separate from the majority, because members genuinely disagreed with each other on the merits of the proposal before them. I have seen members across partisan lines working to amend motions to make them agreeable to all. As the Mayor, there are votes I have been on the losing side during this Council, but I don’t think that is a partisan conspiracy, that is members acting in good conscience and evidence of a Council responsibly doing its job.

Alas, Council responsibly doing its job and acting in good conscience does not fit the narrative being crafted by whoever is developing the Progressive media strategy. I have to have faith that the public will see through that.

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