Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Budget Process Growing Pains Expected

(excerpts from article published by the Daily Gleaner, December 28/10)

Opening the doors to the capital city's budget process showed the public the pain and the passion that goes into determining city services and taxation levels, says Mayor Brad Woodside.

For the first time in the city's history, budget planning meetings were open to the public and media throughout the fall as the city created its nearly $98-million 2011 general fund operating and capital budget.

Opening the doors to budget discussions is about trying to move the city towards greater transparency, said Woodside.

Eleven budget meetings were held. Three of those 11 were behind closed doors where possible personnel cuts were considered, but the rest were conducted publicly and they showed the divergent views of 13 elected officials, Woodside said.

"It's very difficult at times to come to a consensus or to agree on certain things. Everybody has a view or an opinion and it's quite a battle. It's a tough exercise to go through," he said.

"It showed the public the work and the passion that went into it."

Open budget sessions didn't attract members of the public with one exception. When the budget process started in September, one of finance committee chairman Mike O'Brien's constituents attended.

Beyond that, media members attended the sessions and listened as councillors reviewed spending, asked questions and looked for areas to cut costs.

At times, tempers flared and O'Brien had to warn councillors to keep it civil.

"I've always in the past said to councils, whether it's a budget meeting or a council meeting, that there's nothing wrong with a disagreement or objecting to what someone else is saying, but when the gavel comes down and you leave the room, you leave it here," the mayor said. "It tends to work quite well."

Councillors are passionate in their views and the fur does fly, he said.

"It's not a pleasant exercise to go through and when it's finished, it's quite a relief."

Woodside said like it or not, it will be the way the city conducts business.

"There's legislation coming into place that says meetings have to be open and that there's more transparency. We're trying to get ahead of it and we're going to open up the city for business. If somebody is not supporting something, then I think the public has a right to be a part of what that discussion is and see where their councillor stands on any given issue.''

The mayor said there will likely be discussion about how the budget preparation process worked and that might influence how 2011 unfolds, but the process will continue to be a public one.

While Woodside said he wanted councillors to leave their budget disagreements at the budget table and carry on with business, that didn't prevent the city's finance committee chairman from venting about disagreements.

O'Brien said he was frustrated by what he called a block of councillors voting against service cuts and rate reductions when he and others felt that there was still too much fat in the municipality's finances.

O'Brien has vowed to go back at it in 2012 and look for more places to create savings and cut the budget to bring in more tax cuts.

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