Not everyone supports the Cobourg Taxpayers Association (CTA) but most would support their statement that the “operating budget and capital budget process is the single most important responsibility that Council has”. In a recent newsletter to those on their mailing list, the CTA asked that the new Council make several specific improvements to budget preparation and reporting. Although they did not spell it out, the new council will have a new Deputy Mayor (Suzanne Séguin) and since the Deputy Mayor is responsible for organizing the budget process, there will be a fresh opportunity to do it differently. The outgoing Deputy Mayor, John Henderson, made some incremental improvements – slightly faster and more transparent – but the CTA is asking for bigger changes and they say that they have been asking for changes since 2015.
- Budgets should be approved by year end – this will be difficult for this year since the process has not started but should be achievable next year. I note that Northumberland County manages this feat.
- Include staffing levels (I would call it personnel count) in the process. The CTA says that these “are one of the most important items for Council to understand and review because salaries, wages and benefits represent over 50% of the Town’s $23+ million in property taxes collected each year. Adding staff is an expensive obligation for the current year and adds expenses for every future year.” Part time staff would be counted as “Full-time equivalents – (FTE)” – e.g. someone working for 3 months would be ¼ of an FTE. They say that this approach would make budgeting operating costs easier and simpler to review. My business experience is that major corporations use this approach. Manage personnel count and you manage most of the activity.
- Provide regular comparisons of performance to budget. Although councillors may get reports on performance to budget, I found only one report to Council in the last 12 months and that was on 3 December 2017 for Q3, 2017 (there may have been others). That’s a full 2 months after the end of the quarter. When asked why it took so long, Treasurer Ian Davey told me it was because results needed to be first seen by the CAO and the Deputy Mayor before they were released. The CTA says that comparisons between years and to budget would be easier if the reports included staffing levels.
The CTA also criticized a lack of emphasis on cost control. They did not expand on what exactly they meant by this but the budget process has always had a strong restraint on the resulting tax increase. Perhaps they mean that maybe taxes don’t need to increase at all.
- Cobourg Budget performance to end of Q3 – 3 December 2017
- CTA Newsletter – 8 Nov 2018 – reformatted to suit a pdf