2020 City Budget Deputation
Charla Robinson, President
On Thursday, January 9th Charla and Chamber Past Chair Nathan Lawrence presented feedback on the proposed 2020 City budget.
We represent over 800 businesses and over 20,000 employees in our community with a membership that encompasses businesses of all sizes and from all sectors of the local economy including the charitable sector. These organization are the lifeblood of our city providing the services, supplies and supports that make Thunder Bay such an amazing place to live, work and play.
For many years, the Chamber has been an advocate for a Program & Service Review as the starting point for an informed discussion on the future of municipal expenditures. On behalf of our Membership, I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Council for the visionary leadership you have shown by undertaking this review and to offer our continued support and assistance as you move forward with this important analysis. We look forward to participating in the community discussions to come. The Program & Service Review Phase One report outlines a number of drivers and themes that provide a clarifying lens that will be helpful to you in the spending decisions that you will make throughout this budget process.
We acknowledge that Thunder Bay is facing serious challenges and that social pressures, layoffs and uncertainty in local industrial and retail sectors, and funding cuts by the province are adding to the complexity of the budget process for the city.
Businesses and citizens in our community are facing these same complexities. In November, the Chamber, United Way and Lakehead Social Planning Council came together with over 120 community members to discuss the impacts of our social challenges and to develop ideas for grassroots solutions – that work continues. Many businesses across the community are experiencing these social impacts directly through elevated safety concerns for employees and customers, and an increasing number of thefts on top of the ongoing challenges of a sluggish economy, skilled worker shortages and increasing costs.
Six years ago, the Chamber released a report that provided an analysis of the City’s municipal finances based on data drawn from the 2012 financial statements and BMA report. At that time, the Chamber expressed significant concern about the level of municipal spending compared to other relevant communities and the impact of that spending on current and future property taxes if spending continued at the same levels. We recognize that efforts have been made to find internal savings which have reduced operating overhead by $15 million dollars since 2012, however, we must also point out that in that same timeframe, tax funded spending has risen from $157 million to this year’s $200.2 million dollar tax collection proposal – an increase of over $43 million in just 8 years!
This discussion cannot only be about the total annual tax collection. It must also include a balancing of where those dollars are being spent and how that impacts our future costs. As was discussed at last night’s Council budget meeting, our annual infrastructure deficit continues to expand because operating budget increases are eating up available funds.
Chamber Members are asking for you – our Council – to consider these budget decisions around three key factors: transparency, accountability, and efficiency.
Council can increase transparency through plain language discussion of the dollar values of any spending. Clear communication about the proposed $6.1 million dollar spending increase and the total $200.2 million dollars that will need to be collected from taxpayers will help the community to understand your decisions. Discussion of percentages sometimes add confusion when the baseline is not fully understood by the general public.
During the 2018 election, each of you committed to accountability and were elected with a citizen mandate to improve cost controls. Accountability can be improved by aligning the drivers and themes identified in the Program and Service Review Phase One report as part of your budget analysis. The Phase One report identifies 25 assets or areas where efficiencies can be realized. In addition, Council has directed its consultants to move forward with a deeper analysis of 12 municipal divisions.
There are numerous proposed expenditures within the budget package which could restrict your ability to respond to the Program and Service Review Final Report. One such example is the recommendation of $679,000 dollars to replace fuel tanks at both the Mountdale Yard ($298K) and the Front Street Yard ($381K). In consideration of this request, it would be prudent to consider the driver identified in the phase one PS Review as the “prevalence of sprawl” and the reference to “duplicate facilities that reflect the two cities origin of Thunder Bay”. As sprawl has been identified as a significant driver of costs, Council may question whether proceeding with enhancements to both of these duplicate facilities makes sense at this time OR if a more strategic approach would be to defer some or all of this proposed expense until after the final report can be analyzed.
The third factor to consider relates to efficiency and how to receive the best value while enhancing service delivery. Council should ask where further investments in technology can yield long-term improvements to service delivery and associated costs. A positive example of this approach can be found in the planned implementation of an on-line booking system for city facilities which will greatly improve the user experience and decrease staff time on data input and facility schedule management.
Another approach that should be evaluated is the utilization of employee attrition to address the changing staffing needs of city departments. Not including our police force, the city currently employs one thousand seven hundred and fifteen full time equivalents which means that for every one thousand citizens we have 15.8 city FTE’s. Every staff departure offers an opportunity to review and revise staffing needs to better meet the future requirements of the corporation. With approximately 50 retirements every year within the organization, there is ample occasion for reallocation to other departments to maintain current FTE complements. Chamber Members are concerned about the growth of city staffing levels at a time of population decline and limited economic growth. We are looking to Council and Senior Administration to utilize this best practise.
In closing, we refer again to the social challenges of our community and ask that you consider budget allocations within this framework. The Thunder Bay Counts Shared Agenda for Social Change which will be explained by the next presenter, identifies community goals and priority actions that are a useful guide for your analysis of spending requests.
Is $25,000 dollars better used to provide programming for low income youth or for the sister city program? Can $40,000 dollars be offered to social service agencies to clean up litter prone areas instead of funding advertising against littering? In these times of limited resources, every dollar that is allocated FOR something is also a dollar that will NOT be spent on something else…choose wisely.
We wish you well in your budget deliberations and hope that these suggestions are helpful.