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Last night’s meeting provided an interesting preview to what we can expect with the development of the 2013 budget. The actual discussion was a bit of a surprise based on the last council meeting. What I thought was going to be a discussion of the budget review process actually was a first look at expense items that had been identified as potential areas for budget savings. Revenue items were also up for discussion but time ran out. I’m sure they will be picked up a subsequent meeting.

I won’t go through the decisions reached, they were for the most part rather trivial and avoided anything approaching a tough decision. Rather I’ll offer some thoughts about the process from my seat in the peanut gallery. (By the way there are lots of empty seats up here.)

Councillors, please, please, please remove the word ‘creative’ from your vocabulary when directing staff. Too many times last night when a budget issue arose that might have benefited from a tough decision, council looked to staff and asked them to be ‘creative’ in finding a solution. Oh, and at the same time, why not ask staff to take a ‘creative’ look at transmuting lead into gold. Better yet, let’s turn rock into gold.

Too much of the discussion was spent on looking at options that might yield budget savings in the years to come, not 2013 and 2014. This is important to consider but once again distracts council’s focus from the 2013 and 2014 budget challenges. But I’ll give council a pass on this one, last night’s meeting from what I could tell was only a ‘warm up’ session.

In terms of the staff work in preparation for the meeting I feel the discussion would have benefited from some ‘ballpark’ figures for the amount of savings involved with some of the suggestions. A thousand here and a thousand there imply that council will need to find 900 ‘heres and theres’ to close the budget gap. The focus needs to be on the tens of thousands opportunities. Putting at least an order of magnitude on most of the items would have helped focus the discussion.

Staff certainly didn’t suggest any significant cuts in their own operations. There were a couple of delayed hirings offered, as well as opportunities to reduce overtime salary costs, but no realignment suggestions (involving staff cuts) were on the list. This may of course be an issue for a closed council meeting, but it is something that will need to be considered.

Last night’s meting provided no suggestion that we will see council win gold, silver or bronze in the budget marathon. But it’s early and I’m really happy to see that training has already started. Starting in September council needs to meet at least twice monthly to wrap their head around the many budget items, trade offs and tough decisions that will be required.

One last thought: there needs to be leadership. Unfortunately Ontario’s mayor and council system limits this, but an answer must be found. Too often one councilor heads off in a direction and to avoid conflict a majority of the other councillors follow even though their expression and body language suggests they really aren’t in agreement. It’s nice to see the teamwork, but without occasional disagreement and leadership the only solution we will see are last minute desperation budget cuts or a hefty tax rate increase. Perhaps the town’s citizen finance committee has a role to play in pushing council and staff to consider some politically tough decisions.